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Sunderland Deserve Praise And Pride
The images taken from London's Covent Garden area from Saturday evening demonstrated all you needed to know. It may sound churlish and misty-eyed, but the way in which Sunderland's supporters cherished this occasion was reflected perfectly in the performance of the players during the game's early stages. This was not just a group of fans desperate for success and players wanting to impress but respectful of their opponents, it felt like a city and club pulling together for the same goal.
It may not be a particularly technical observation, but the most obvious conclusion to draw from the first half was that Sunderland's players just wanted it more. In midfield, Lee Cattermole, Sebastian Larsson and Jack Colback showed more desire and hunger to press City on the ball than Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri ever did when in possession. Cattermole in particular impressed, quick in the tackle but without the petulance and stupidity that has so frustrated multiple Sunderland managers.
George Caulkin wrote a fine piece on Friday in The Times in which he described (in a style rather akin to Renton in Trainspotting) just how much this final means and meant to an area like Sunderland. There was no either/or dichotomy regarding a cup final or relegation to be answered in the minds of the supporters because a cup final represented something different, somewhere far away from the mundanity of the 9-5, the tedium of domestic and financial grind and the worry of a relegation battle.
After 22 years without a domestic final, this was a group of fans determined to enjoy their time in the sun. Sunderland's players could not fail to find inspiration in such support and, for close to an hour, it showed. The Capital One Cup has been much-maligned in recent years - this was a strong case that it still retains enough importance in the minds of many to justify its continuation.
Why The High Line?
The decision to select Martin Demichelis in central defence was strange from Manuel Pellegrini. Having allowed Costel Pantilimon the chance to retain his cup place after playing in all but one tie in the lead-up to the final, Joleon Lescott was dropped in favour of the Argentinean despite the England international appearing in every minute on route to Wembley.
Stranger still was the manner in which Demichelis and Vincent Kompany operated positionally. Why would Pellegrini have instructed his defenders to push so high up the field? With Fabio Borini always likely to become isolated as City dominated possession, the high ball upfield was the obvious way for Sunderland to look to be dangerous. By having central defenders that lack pace so close to the half-way line, a huge amount of space was left in behind.
Demichelis' selection was also odd when combined with the selection of Aleksander Kolarov to his left. Whilst the pace and defensive responsibility of Gael Clichy would have negated Adam Johnson's threat, Kolarov is a full-back more comfortable in the opposition's half than his own. City were left worryingly exposed. Every time a ball was played long, either Borini or Johnson was the favourite to chase it down. City's selection made such a weakness obvious.
The opening goal was the obvious example. Borini was too easily able to leave Demichelis with a simple run but, as against Barcelona in the Champions League, one of the defensive pair then made a second error to compound the first. Quite why Vincent Kompany thought he had to take the ball rather than simply holding up Borini is unclear, but it was a catastrophic error of judgment.
Towards the end of the first half Borini went clear again (albeit from an offside position), and it took captain Kompany to produce a fabulous sprint and tackle to prevent further danger. A side as expensive as City shouldn't need to rely on such moments.
Borini Showing Signs Of Real Progression
Fabio Borini's first season at Anfield was dreadful, of that there is no doubt, and one Premier League goal in over 500 minutes for an £11million fee looks an evident waste of money. That said, this was the Italian's first full season in the Premier League, and he is still just 22 years old.
Perhaps we were too quick to judge Borini. In a struggling Sunderland side he has scored just five times this season, but goals against Newcastle (twice), Chelsea and Manchester United have all come in impressive victories and performances. There are now signs that a successful Premier League striker is developing.
His goal against City was sublime. Holding off an overly physical Vincent Kompany is no mean feat, but the way in which the forward steadied himself before curling past Costel Pantilimon and into the bottom corner with the outside of his right boot left Kompany and City stunned. It was exactly the sort of finish for which slow-motion replays were invented.
Whilst it would be silly to criticise Brendan Rodgers during a period in which his club's attacking prowess is evident, was the decision spend £7million on Iago Aspas and then loan out Borini not slightly profligate on Liverpool's part? There is every chance that Aspas will go the same way and be loaned out next season (Swansea would seem a likely destination) - when does this merry-go-round end?
Form Is temporary...
And then, as it normally tends to do, class revealed its permanence. Better team with better players wins football match is not a particularly insightful epithet, but the quality of City's two goals within two minutes of each other made so apparent the gulf in individual class.
Yaya Toure was anonymous before the break, but seems to constantly retain that ability to suddenly decide "Right that's quite enough of this, chaps" before grabbing a match by the scruff of its neck. Often that is represented in a driving run from midfield, but against Sunderland it was of a more spectacular nature. Vito Mannone may have declined to attempt a full-length dive, but it merely appeared a reasonable effort-saving measure. It was non-saveable.
Samir Nasri's drilled half-volley was no less wonderful, requiring the type of technique that usually makes even professional players look foolish. It was reported this week that City are intending to offer the Frenchman an extension to his contract, and his Man of the Match performance could not have been better timed. Is there a more improved Premier League player from last season to this?
Dzeko Now Barred From Last Chance Saloon
In last week's Winners and Losers I remarked that Edin Dzeko's poor form meant that City could look to replace him this summer. Having scored half of his goals in victories by five or more clear goals, it seemed that Dzeko's goals presented something of a false case for the defence.
Before the League Cup final, Dzeko had three shots on target in five matches, from a total of 25 shots. After the League Cup final, Dzeko has had three shots on target in six matches, from a total of 25 shots. No shots even attempted all match as the Bosnian turned in another toothless display - he gave away the ball on almost half of the occasions he attempted a pass.
City are a club with too many resources to carry any of the players within their 25-man squad limit imposed by the Premier League, and Dzeko can simply not be relied on in situations when City need him most. A last chance may well have expired.
Daniel Storey - follow him on Twitter