Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Sunderland boss dared much more than just to dream!

Sunderland manager Gus Poyet before the match.
Sunderland manager Gus Poyet before the match.
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A LITTLE after 9pm on Saturday night, the beer pumps of the Covent Garden hostelries reached the bottom of the barrel.

Sunderland supporters had drank the capital dry.

There wasn’t even a Babycham to be had in the nearby Tesco Express.

A party atmosphere prevailed all weekend in London. Nothing was going to prevent Sunderland’s hordes enjoying a first visit to Wembley since 1998.

But while there was a determination to enjoy the occasion, regardless of the result, among the thousands that made the journey south, the thought of “just being happy to be there” never crossed Gus Poyet’s mind.

This was another feather in the cap for the Sunderland manager’s blossoming reputation.

He did more than dare to dream. He devised an immaculate battleplan that took Sunderland to within a whisker of ending a trophy drought which is still four decades and counting.

Poyet made big calls in his starting XI.

Bringing back Wes Brown and the immense Lee Cattermole was no issue. There was never any doubt that experienced heads and big-game players would be welcomed back into the fold.

But installing Seb Larsson in the middle of the park and Fabio Borini in his favoured central striker role were huge decisions.

Poyet could easily have taken the easy options of sticking with Jozy Altidore - tellingly not even included on the bench after his woeful display at Arsenal - or installing Emanuele Giaccherini.

Yet the former Brighton boss stuck his neck out; believing the brave decisions were the best way of countering Manchester City’s attacking riches.

Oh, how it worked in that opening 45 minutes.

Sunderland had the harmony, togetherness and the collective understanding of their strategy which was so noticeably missing from the ranks of Manuel Pellegrini’s side.

The Black Cats hunted in packs, hastling, harrying and pressing City into errors or down blind alleys from which they were unable to escape.

From the moment Phil Bardsley thundered into David Silva with a Kevin Ball-esque cruncher in the opening exchanges, there was a dogged determination around Sunderland.

Sunderland weren’t just there to dream. They were there to win.

The inclusion of Borini and Larsson in those roles was key to it.

Borini showed what Sunderland have arguably been missing all season. A central striker capable of causing the opposition defence a headache.

The on-loan Liverpool man worked the channels, won his headers, chased down centre-halves and stretched Manchester City’s defence on the counter-attack.

Crucially, he made Vincent Kompany uncomfortable too. That was always going to be pivotal towards Sunderland’s hopes of victory. They needed someone capable of dragging the Man City skipper out of position.

Kompany’s anxiety was shown with Borini’s goal. Although the Belgian made amends with a stunning recovery challenge to deny the Italian a second later in the half, he was horrifyingly culpable for the opener.

But Borini still required ice-cool composure to convert it and he did it majestically. In truth, he’s been doing it all season on the big occasions - four of the Italian’s five previous Sunderland goals coming against Man United, Chelsea and Newcastle (twice).

Leaving Borini to operate down the middle must now be in the forefront of Poyet’s mind for the remainder of the relegation battle.

So too will Larsson, if he reproduces performances like this.

The Swedish international was frustrated to be removed from the field on the hour mark - and understandably so - after he had been at the forefront of Sunderland’s first half display.

Typically, Larsson never stopped running to close down the space available to City’s outnumbered central midfield, but he also distributed the ball effectively to set Sunderland away on the counter-attack.

It was a surprise that he was used in a central role, with Jack Colback going to the left, but as the game unfolded, that ploy made perfect sense.

Colback wasn’t going to leave Pablo Zabaleta on his backside by bursting beyond the right-back, but he crucially prevented the Argentine getting forwards and injecting the width into City’s play.

The star of the midfield was Cattermole though.

There wasn’t a more dominant player on the pitch during the first 45 minutes.

The tenacity shown by the Teessider on the edge of his own area was predictable, yet was pivotal, given that is the zone where City do so much of their damage.

Repeatedly during the first half, a Cattermole interception would prove to be the catalyst for a Sunderland counter-attack as he utterly outshone Yaya Toure.

But the 25-year-old backed up that bite in the tackle by demonstrating his range of passing too.

Just before Borini’s opener, Cattermole played a sublime crossfield pass with the outside of his right foot to Adam Johnson which Kompany just managed to deal with.

It was the first of many such passes from a player whose distribution continues to be overlooked by the wider world.

Cattermole has been working on that part of his game on the training ground with fellow defensive midfielder Liam Bridcutt.

While Bridcutt remains a firm favourite of Poyet’s, the £2.5million January arrival will surely struggle to get his place back.

When Cattermole was withdrawn with 15 minutes to go as Poyet went for broke with Emanuele Giaccherini, the former Middlesbrough man was utterly spent.

So too were his team-mates.

That, as much as Man City’s brilliance, prevented Sunderland getting back into the game after the conversion of two of the best goals Wembley will see.

It was impossible to do anything other than admire the quality of Toure and Samir Nasri’s strikes. If Sunderland were going to lose the cup final, that was the way to do it.

But after that psychological blow, those tired legs began to feel heavier and heavier.

Predictably, that tireless work-rate of the opening 45 minutes began to drop and gaps opened up for City, particularly on the counter-attack.

It would have been very different though had Steven Fletcher taken an agonisingly presentable option with a minute to go.

Fletcher, who had actually looked bright following his introduction, was clearly caught in two minds after Marcos Alonso’s knock-down fell to him so invitingly.

But it was crying for him to swing his weaker right foot at the ball. Dithering before the ball bounced harmlessly off him and behind was a depressing waste of a glorious late chance, particularly as City sealed the deal moments later.

Sunderland’s exhausted players sank to the floor after Jesus Navas’ strike on the counter-attack and the tears were to follow when the final whistle sounded moments later.

The torture continued with an agonising walk up to the royal box to collect runners-up medals, while the sounds of City anthem Blue Moon blasted out of the Wembley PA System.

But when Poyet’s men emerged from the dressing room an hour or so later, dejection had been replaced by pride.

In their hearts, Sunderland’s players knew they could have done nothing more. That was a comfort.

Unlike the anti-climatic finals of 1985 and 1992, Sunderland stepped onto the big stage, performed, and played their part in a thoroughly absorbing encounter.

Even in the most exuberant moments during the early hours of Sunday morning, the thousands who had crammed into Covent Garden could not have asked for anything more.