Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Scent of Wembley in the air for Sunderland fans

Sunderland's Steven Fletcher goes close to scoring.
Sunderland's Steven Fletcher goes close to scoring.
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SEVERAL thousand Sunderland supporters will be nervously totting up the loyalty points on their membership accounts at the Stadium of Light ticket office today.

Those who chose to watch the first leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final in the warmth of the living room or pub will suddenly have a sniff of being involved in a first Wembley visit since the 1998 play-offs.

Despite the cries which will inevitably appear over the wilting appeal of the League Cup over 17,000 empty seats, a well-below capacity attendance was understandable.

These are supporters who have been left brassic by a ludicrous festive fixture schedule and have hardly been given value-for-money in their viewing material over the last 18 months.

But while a full-to-brimming Stadium of Light would have been cause for a torrent of butterflies in the stomach area, a smaller crowd perhaps proved to be beneficial for Marcos Alonso after being handed a daunting debut as Gus Poyet’s first signing as Black Cats boss.

It came as absolutely no surprise that a left-back was top of Poyet’s wish-list in January.

The absence of a regular player holding down that position has almost become boring over the last few years.

Of those he inherited, only desperate last-gasp summer buy Andrea Dossena offered Poyet a specialist left-back after the Uruguayan immediately binned Paolo Di Canio’s ploy of using Jack Colback there.

Alonso may not even prove to be the long-term solution after only joining on a five-month loan from Fiorentina.

But as the latest stop-gap measure, Alonso looked a more than adequate offering last night.

The former Bolton man will have been suffering from his share of ring-rust after featuring just three times in Serie A for Fiorentina following his summer move from the Championship.

Yet he offered Sunderland that natural attacking balance which they have been lacking while Phil Bardsley has been filling in there, albeit the former Manchester United man has been one of Poyet’s most consistent performers over recent weeks and was again excellent last night.

The full-backs are the key attacking cogs in Poyet’s system and Alonso was Sunderland’s most dangerous player in a tepid first half.

The Spaniard constantly looked to get in behind United’s defence and whipped in a pair of teasing crosses during the opening 20 minutes – one of which looped just inches out of the path of the onrushing Steven Fletcher.

There were a couple of moments of rust defensively in that opening half, as he was twice caught out by Antonio Valencia – once by the winger’s quick feet and then when he committed himself too easily.

But as debuts go, this was an impressive, assured and confident one.

Encouragingly, Alonso had the stamina to last the 90 too and made a telling contribution as United pushed for a late equaliser when he intercepted Ryan Giggs’ teasing left-wing cross with substitute Darren Fletcher waiting.

Poyet will hope that back four of Alonso, Phil Bardsley, John O’Shea and Wes Brown remains in situe after the latter pair were reunited for the first time in five games together at centre-half.

Nemanja Vidic got above both O’Shea and Brown for the equaliser, yet Sunderland’s foundations are far more solid with the ex-Man United pair together.

While United huffed and puffed during five minutes of stoppage time, David Moyes’ side never had a sniff of a leveller.

In fact, their goal threat throughout was powder-puff.

On this evidence, the tales of United’s decline haven’t been exaggerated and they cannot possibly be as poor when Sunderland visit Old Trafford in a fortnight for what will be a fascinating second leg.

Only Adnan Januzaj offered any creativity or spark of invention in the visitors’ ranks.

Without Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, United were distinctly ordinary and on the back of a damaging defeat to Swansea 48 hours earlier, this was the most tepid of responses.

Moyes’ post-match comments blaming the referee was a classic distraction ploy. That said it all.

But encouragingly, Sunderland punished a rank average display and that has not always been the case this season.

The first half was largely more of the same from last week’s midweek encounter against Aston Villa, as Sunderland passed, passed and passed until running out of ideas around the penalty area.

There was an undoubted hesitation to have a shot or cross when in range and that’s a barrier which Poyet must ultimately overcome.

But other than a Ryan Giggs shot which deflected onto the bar, Sunderland were comfortable at the other end and once the 40-year-old put the ball into his own net on the stroke of half-time, the Black Cats sensed an upset.

Vidic’s leveller didn’t halt them – Seb Larsson denied by a superb save from David De Gea moments before Fabio Borini’s winner from the spot.

Adam Johnson was the architect of that penalty after a game-changing cameo from the bench.

This is what supporters – and Poyet – desperately want to see from Johnson; a confident winger capable of running at full-backs and proving devlishly difficult to contain.

While it was perhaps a soft penalty conceded by Tom Cleverley after minimal contact, the England midfielder was asking for trouble by dangling out a leg.

The bigger question is whether Johnson – and Sunderland – can reproduce that performance AND result at Fulham on Saturday.

But for now, there is day-dreaming on the streets of Wearside at the possibility of a first cup final in 22 years.

In a season of doom, gloom, relegation, managerial upheaval, streams of signings and almost constant turmoil, some dreaming is to be welcomed.

Whatever happens in the two league games before the second leg, Sunderland have a sniff of Wemb-er-ley.