When Manuel Pellegrini was appointed manager of Manchester City last summer, he was given a target of winning five trophies in five seasons. He may get to that mark rather sooner having collected his first title with success in the Capital One Cup final. Sunderland fought gamely, took the lead, and held it for 44 minutes, but in the end two brilliant finishes tipped an engaging cup final City’s way.
Sunderland had started with Fabio Borini as the lone striker, with Jozy Altidore not even in the match day squad as Poyet included Steven Fletcher, just recovered from injury, and the January signing Ignacio Scocco on the bench. That meant Jack Colback in an unfamiliar position on the left, looking to block the forward surges of the City right-back Pablo Zabaleta, and Sebastian Larsson playing jut to the right of the holder Lee Cattermole, presumably with the intention of shackling David Silva.
The use of Borini was a surprise, but the advantage of his mobility against Martin Demichelis was soon apparent. He’d already made one run out to the left, behind Aleksandar Kolarov, and held the ball up superbly to generate Sunderlandâs first spell of pressure, when he put his side ahead after 10 minutes. Lee Cattermole, so maligned and having been expected to leave in January, dispossessed Fernandinho, and the ball was worked to the left where Adam Johnson clipped a superb pass down the line. Vincent Kompany and Demichelis failed to deal with Borini, who bustled in behind them and smacked a superb finish into the bottom corner with the outside of his right foot.
Although City had begun much the better, and Vito Mannone, on his 26th birthday, had made a diving save from Samir Nasri, the goal seemed to unsettle Manuel Pellegrini’s side. Demichelis and Costel Pantilimon, chosen instead of Joe Hart as he has been throughout this Capital One Cup run, seemed particularly nervous and Johnson got behind the center-back again, City was fortunate his cut-back wedged between Kompany’s legs, when it could easily have deflected in for an own goal. But slowly City began to assert itself again. Mannone was called into a save from Nasri after a burst from Sergio Aguero. Sunderland snapped and fought, throwing bodies in the way, effective rather than pretty, but also exhausting.
And yet the threat was always there from Sunderland. Whatever else has happened since Gus Poyet took over in October, its use of the ball has improved immeasurably. Seven minutes before the break, Borini was presented with a glorious opportunity to make it 2-0, allowed to play on despite being offside as Larsson flicked on a long ball from back. He ran on, but just as he was shaping to shoot, Kompany made a superb sliding challenge. What if he’d hit it earlier? What if he’d opened his body earlier, forcing Kompany to come across him? It was the sort of spurned chance that can define games like this.
So it proved. Yaya Toure had had a quiet first half, seeming troubled by the energy and bite of Cattermole and Sebastian Larsson, but even on his off days, he remains a player capable of brilliance. With Larsson, having taken a blow, hobbling, Toure was afforded a couple of yards of space 25 yards from goal. With an almost casual swing of his right foot, he guided the ball into the top corner.
Three minutes later, City had a second as Aleksandar Kolarov’s cross was deflected to the top of the box where Nasri met the bouncing ball with a superb strike with the outside of his right foot, the ball flashing just inside the post. It was two superb players scoring goals of individual brilliance rather than any great cohesive play - but that’s the advantage when you can buy the very best on the world: even when the team falters, there is enough individual magic to turn a game.
Sunderland, to its credit, didn’t buckle. Somehow, it came again, the sublimely calm Ki Sung-Yeung to the fore. It created angles and crosses, won a number of corners and there was even an opening as Jack Colback chested a ball off for Fletcher, but his shot was hit straight at Pantilimon. By the end, though, limbs were exhausted, the imagination lacking to produce one final twist. In the end, Jesus Navas sealed it in the final minute, finishing off a rapid break led by Toure.
Sunderland had fought impeccably, harried and hustled and made life as difficult as possible for City - it did not, certainly, look a team in the midst of a relegation fight â but in the end it was undone by two moments of unstoppable magnificence.
There was no one to blame, no scapegoat, no shame: just another defeat in a cup final for a club that has won nothing in 41 years. For City, meanwhile, there is a other trophy and the start of another era.