LEAGUE CUP

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League Cup last hope for Man United

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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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It has indeed come to this. Manchester United need to win the League Cup to salvage something worth keeping from their 100 car-pileup of a season. To retain any semblance of normalcy, of their usual all-conquering selves, they have to place all their chips to the center of the table in a competition they ordinarily wouldn’t deign to play their regulars in.

They’ve won this competition just three times in the last two decades, while they won the Premier League a dozen times. Saying they couldn’t be bothered is probably a simplistic conclusion. But it’s surely not far from the truth. Now, they must. For their pride. For their dignity. And because it represents their last best chance of making it into Europe next season.

It’s fairly self-evident by this point that United won’t repeat as Premier League winners. The dire 3-1 weekend loss to Chelsea, wherein the Red Devils mustered hardly any chances of scoring, put an end to all that. With 16 games to play, they sit 14 points off league leaders Arsenal and a dozen points behind third-placed Chelsea. You just don’t make up that kind of gap. Especially not the way United have been playing.

Seventh, that’s where they find themselves in this wretched year of succession, the long-feared transfer of power from iron man Sir Alex Ferguson. David Moyes is trying his best. But it isn’t very good. Even making up the six points to overtake fourth-placed Liverpool and at least make it into the UEFA Champions League seems a stretch. Ditto for fifth-placed Tottenham Hotspur and its UEFA European League spot -- they’re also six points away. Certainly, United won’t win the Champions League this year, even if they got a soft round of 16 draw in Olympiacos.

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So, in order to at least snag a third qualifying round berth to the Europa League next year and retain any continental presence at all -- provided they’d survive two playoff rounds and make it into the main tournament -- United has to win the League Cup.

But the task isn’t so simple. Tuesday’s opponents Sunderland beat them 2-1 in the first leg of their semifinals. An own goal and a dubious penalty did them in. United have the home-field advantage this time around but Old Trafford has ceased to be the impregnable bastion it once was. If anything, the pressure the floundering team is lumbered with seems amplified there. One team after another has broken decade-long losing streaks there this season. At the Theater of Dreams, insomnia has set in.

Sunderland aren’t having a storybook season either. But after losing 11 of their first 15 league games, they seem to have turned the corner under Gus Poyet, who replaced the erratic Paolo Di Canio. They’ve lost just one of their last seven in the Premier League -- winning two and tying four. Still not sterling stuff, exactly, but they will present United with considerable problems nonetheless.

United’s stranglehold on games was a trademark under Ferguson but elusive in the nascent Moyes era. They don’t bend matches to their will any longer. The stats, pulled from WhoScored.com underpin that.

The Red Devils have struggled without Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie in the starting XI this season (Image: WhoScored.com).

As compared to the 2012-13 Premier League season, United’s shots per game are down from 14.8 to 13.2 this year -- shots on target went from 5.6 per game to 4.9. Possession has slipped from 56.2 percent to 54.8; pass completion from 85.7 percent to 83.6. But the altered playing style, pushing the game further to the flanks under Moyes, is also borne out by the numbers. Dribbles per game have shot up from 6.4 to 9.1 and 86 percent of attacks now originate on the wings, compared to 72 percent last year. Logically, crosses and long balls are up and short passes down.

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If there isn’t necessarily a causality between the shift in attacking focus and the reduced numbers in shots and passing efficiency, there is at least an explanation in there somewhere about why United have looked so much worse with mostly the same players. United’s squad was never built with the intention of playing a wide game. These days, Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young aren’t dominant wingers any longer. Ryan Giggs has been moved to the center -- which is just as shaky -- and wunderkind Adnan Januzaj seems more suited for the spine, too. Shinji Kagawa never was a winger, in spite of Moyes’s attempts to re-tool him into one, and Wilfried Zaha won’t even get a crack at it.

And so it isn’t hard to diagnose at least a part of United’s problems. There are other issues. But the style is incompatible with the personnel, a beginner’s mistake by a very seasoned manager in a new job. Moyes has got a chance to set things somewhat right against Sunderland and to keep sight of a badly-need trophy and a ticket into Europe -- even if it is for a seat in the nosebleeds.

If United do manage to go through though, their cross-town rivals Manchester City, easily their superiors this year, most likely await in the final.

United’s tasks loom as tall as their failings.

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