Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Sunderland must drive at Manchester City

Lee Cattermole.
Lee Cattermole.
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WILLY WONKA caused less demand for tickets when he decided to open up the doors of his chocolate factory.

For Sunderland fans, securing a seat in Wembley this weekend has indeed been the golden ticket.

Even the guarantee of a place for every season card holder has not been able to quench the demand among supporters desperate to wander down Wembley Way with that precious piece of cardboard clasped in their hand.

Favours have been called in, money has changed hands and competitions entered with a prayer.

It’s no surprise.

The 22-year wait to see Sunderland compete for silverware has seen an entire generation deprived of watching their team stand a chance of winning anything.

However much remaining in the Premier League is the overriding objective lingering in the background, this is THE chance to witness a possible entry into Sunderland folklore.

Manchester City followers are never shrinking violets either and their interaction with the 31,000 from Wearside will ensure a white-hot atmosphere.

But although the Premier League title-chasers sold out their ticket allocation a week before Sunderland finished their sale, the League Cup is far from the top of City’s priority list these days.

Facing Barcelona in the Champions League’s last 16 has predictably and understandably taken precedent.

But for Sunderland supporters, a Wembley cup final is almost mythical.

There will be nothing subdued about the red and white hordes traipsing down Wembley Way for a first League Cup final appearance since 1985.

But have they got a hope of witnessing Sunderland break their 41-year trophy drought?

Well, of all the teams Man City would choose to face in the final, Sunderland would be near the bottom of the list.

The Black Cats have enjoyed the Midas touch over City at the Stadium of Light in each of the last four seasons and certainly in November’s meeting between the two sides, Manuel Pellegrini’s men almost had an air of ‘here we go again’ resignation around them.

Even in the more formidable surroundings of the Etihad, Sunderland have performed after going perilously close to becoming the only team in the 2011-12 title-winning campaign to win there, before City mounted a dramatic late comeback to secure a 3-3 draw.

That will be playing on the minds of those in the City dressing room tomorrow.

So too will the outcome of Man City’s last appearance at Wembley.

The distaste for then manager Roberto Mancini clearly affected the firm favourites in last season’s FA Cup final, as City labored and struggled to muster any intensity or tempo.

But they were still humbled by a Wigan side comparative with Sunderland’s current crop in terms of both ability and style.

The vast majority of City’s starting XI on Sunday went through that uncomfortable giant-killing against the Latics and if the pendulum begins to swing Sunderland’s way this weekend, those unpleasant memories will come flooding back.

What Wigan did so well last May though was to keep City occupied at the back.

That is crucial.

Sunderland cannot afford to sit back and invite pressure – as they did in the first half at Arsenal last weekend. It will just give Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy licence to bomb forward and operate as supplementary wingers.

Gus Poyet’s must offer a threat on the counter-attack and that is where the Uruguayan’s team selection is so crucial.

As the Sunderland boss told the Echo yesterday, he has already decided on nine of his starting XI. One of those remaining two places is surely the striker.

Jozy Altidore’s display at Arsenal is likely to cost him a place in the side, but Poyet has to weigh up whether Steven Fletcher is fit enough to start, or whether he continues where he left off at the Emirates with Fabio Borini down the middle and Emanuele Giaccherini out wide.

Losing Borini’s knack of tracking back on the left flank would be a blow, particularly considering Zabaleta is so adept at contributing offensively.

But Fletcher cannot be match sharp after his last start came in the semi-final second leg at Old Trafford last month.

Borini has the pace to stretch City’s defence too. Looking for the on-loan Liverpool man in behind or down the channels will surely be a more effective ploy than trying to go toe-to-toe physically with Vincent Kompany.

While Sunderland have to be threatening going forwards, they need to be impeccable at the back.

Having Lee Cattermole back in that patrolling role in front of the back four will help matters, as he looks to break up City’s short, sharp passing on the edge of the area.

Cattermole, along with Jack Colback, have also proved effective foes against Yaya Toure in previous encounters too and they will need to be similarly tenacious on Sunday to combat the Ivorian giant.

But it is those quick passes down the sides of defenders for David Silva and – if he returns to action after a month out with a hamstring strain – Sergio Aguero which have the greatest potential to worry Sunderland.

Although Alvaro Negredo and Edin Dzeko can be devastating finishers, John O’Shea and the returning Wes Brown would be far more worried by the low centre of gravity possessed by Silva and Aguero.

Arsenal’s Tomas Rosicky demonstrated the damage that can cause in last weekend’s 4-1 rout.

Sunderland will not be as languid or as timid as they were in that opening 45 minutes in North London, when they were clearly saving themselves for Wembley.

But the Black Cats cannot afford to simply be better. They need to be exceptional.

It shouldn’t be overlooked that Europe will await Sunderland if they can get the better of Pellegrini’s side, even if the trophy is far more important for the 30-odd thousand red and whites inside Wembley.

Those thousands of supporters will enjoy the weekend regardless of the outcome.

But a win... well, dare to dream it.

Verdict: Sunderland win on penalties

Twitter @youngsunecho

* Don’t forget to pick up your Football Echo souvenir cup final special – out at all good newsagents now.

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