Graeme Anderson’s match report: Sunderland’s huge honour in defeat

Sunderland players John O'Shea and Seb Larsson run at Referee Martin Atkinson after he allows Manchester City's second goal.
Sunderland players John O'Shea and Seb Larsson run at Referee Martin Atkinson after he allows Manchester City's second goal.
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CUP final defeats should be the stuff of sorrow.

But it was hard for any Sunderland fan to weep after their team did them so proud in producing a performance befitting the biggest stage - the stage they were playing on for the first time this century.

Beneath the Wembley Arch, Sunderland soared on an afternoon when Gus Poyet got his team selection just right, when his players rose to the occasion and when, for the better part of an hour, they gave super-rich, super-talented Manchester City a real scare.

Gus Poyet had warned his players: “No regrets!” before kick off and they did not let him down.

The only regret they could have had at the final whistle, was that their gargantuan effort had not quite been enough.

An early goal from Fabio Borini gave the red and white army a fantastic, scarcely believable, moment to savour and after holding that lead beyond half-time, it became clear it was going to take something special to stop Sunderland.

Something special was what City had though.

Back-to-back world-class strikes from Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri meant Sunderland’s cup hopes - hopes fans were daring, not just to dream, but to believe - were all but gone in 60 seconds.

It wasn’t all over at Wembley though.

Sunderland kept at it, kept in it, and a minute from full-time had their chance to take the game into stoppage time only for Steven Fletcher to fluff his lines and City to score a third to give a final scoreline which was harsh on the Wearsiders.

It was defeat, but a glorious one for Sunderland and an opportunity taken for Wearside’s amazing support to remind a watching world that they may not be a giant of a club in terms of trophies anymore but they are in terms of spirit, passion and following.

Poyet had kept his team selection a closely-guarded secret and when it emerged it carried the surprise that striker Jozy Altidore was not even in the squad while there were returns for Wes Brown, Lee Cattermole and Seb Larsson.

Manchester City welcomed back lethal striker Sergio Aguero after a month sidelined by a hamstring strain and opted for Costel Pantilimon in goal over England stopper Joe Hart.

The big question for Sunderland fans was which team would turn up for them - the one that played so wonderfully in the cup semi-final at Old Trafford or the one which played so poorly at Arsenal?

Up stepped the Man United version.

The tone was set in just the third minute of the game when Phil Bardsley thundered through David Silva so robustly that the Spaniard ended up on the defender’s back.

But it was a completely fair challenge and referee Martin Atkinson allowed the game to flow on as Sunderland hunted in packs right from the start with January Player of the Month Adam Johnson on the right wing given the chance to stretch City thanks to some great service from the inspired Lee Cattermole among others.

Jack Colback was deployed on the left-flank with instructions to restrict attacking full-back Pablo Zabaleta and did his job superbly in the first half.

City pressured in the opening minutes but Sunderland were terriers and the Blues succeeded only in winning a couple of corners.

Former City man Johnson sparkled and Jack Colback tipped the ball into an open net in the eighth minute in a breakaway move involving Borini.

The Italian was clearly offside and the flag was raised immediately, but Sunderland fans cheered the offside - perhaps worrying they might not have too much, or too long to cheer.

That worry was underlined when City immediately counter-attacked with an Aguero strike from outside the box which was saved well by birthday boy Vito Mannone.

But then came the goal which stunned Wembley, cleverly constructed by Sunderland in the 10th minute and which started when Cattermole won the ball on the edge of his own area and fed Larsson who fed Johnson on the right wing.

The England winger wannabe did his reputation no harm with a delightly judged ball over the top to Borini who was darting over to the right flank.

The Italian’s movement unbalanced City skipper Vincent Kompany, and Borini held him off before homing in on goal to drive an exquisite low shot with the outside of his right boot around Pantilimon and into the far corner.

It was a wonderfully struck effort and the Sunderland crowd reacted exactly as you would expect.

City struggled to respond in the minutes that followed and Borini could have increased Sunderland’s lead just before the quarter-hour when his shot from the edge of the area was deflected over the crossbar.

And from the corner, Wes Brown headed narrowly over the bar as Sunderland continued to impress.

They simply refused to allow City time or space and when Borini charged down a pressurised Kompany clearance in the 20th minute and won a corner, the roar of the red and white fans was deafening.

Sunderland had more chances - Johnson almost embarrassed City before the half-hour when the Blues switched off from a throw in.

Ten minutes later, Borini had a great chance to double the lead only to be denied by a superb tackle from Kompany.

Replays showed the striker was offside when he raced clear of the City defence but the flag stayed down and the goal - which looked more likely than not - would have counted had the City skipper not stretched with brilliant timing as Borini looked to pull the trigger.

In between, Sunderland had an escape of their own after a Nasri corner bounced through the six-yard box before being headed over the crossbar from just a couple of yards out by Borini.

All the same, Sunderland were well worthy of their half-time lead and would genuinely have harboured hopes in the dressing room that this could be their day.

In the other changing room, City manager Manuel Pellegrini was telling his players not to panic but several of them must have been wondering whether it was going to be an action replay of their defeat to Wigan in last year’s Capital One Cup final.

City started the second half positively although David Silva’s 20 yarder in the 50th minute was comfortable for Mannone and Sunderland’s reply seconds later was purposeful with Ki Sung-Yueng smashing a right-foot thunderbolt from 30 yards which Pantilimon pushed over his bar.

But then came the equaliser when Zabaleta, increasingly influential, rolled the ball to Yaya Toure 25-yards out after a spell of City pressure and the Ivorian simply wafted the ball over a crowded area and fractionally under Mannone’s crossbar.

Seb Larsson complained bitterly that Toure had fouled him in winning the ball and the referee should have blown for a foul but there was no denying the quality of the goal.

With the economy of effort of a professional golfer’s swing, Toure simply guided the ball into goal for what was a jaw-dropping finish.

One minute later, Sunderland were 2-0 down.

This time fatigue, mental and physical from Sunderland, played a part.

Aleksander Kolarov’s run on to a long ball forward was not closed down quickly enough and his ball into the danger zone from the left was diverted to Samir Nasri 15 yards out and he reacted with lightning speed to smash a right-footed home so swiftly that Mannone did not move.

Poyet quickly looked to change it, taking off the excellent Cattermole and Johnson to bring on the more attack-minded Steven Fletcher and Craig Gardner and switching to a 4-4-2.

If Sunderland were going down, they would go down fighting.

Fletcher had a decent chance in the 72nd minute when Gardner’s cross was nodded down by Colback to the feet of the striker but the Scottish international scuffed his effort from just inside the area and the shot was straight at Pantilimon anyway.

Sunderland were still in the game going into the last 10 minutes but they were gambling pushing forward and could easily have paid the price.

Kompany drove a close-range effort just wide in the 81st minute and five minutes later Zabaleta curled a shot marginally off target from outside the area.

But Sunderland got their moment they had been hoping for in the 89th minute when Marcos Alonso headed the ball down to Fletcher who was unmarked on the right of goal and instantly facing the prospect of sending the game into extra time.

When Sunderland last tasted Wembley victory, in 1973, Ian Porterfield famously surprised everyone by scored with his weaker right foot - the foot jokingly referred to as the one the left-footed Scot only ever used for standing on.

Fletcher is just as one-footed but instead of hitting the ball first time with his weaker peg as Porterfield instinctively did at a similarly pivotal moment, the striker tried to get it on his stronger left foot, mis-controlled, and Sunderland’s last moment of hope had evaporated.

They had played well enough to win a host of admirers only to be undone by two moments of City sheer brilliance.

Having scored two goals from the gods, it was entirely appropriate that Jesus should score City’s third.

Substitute Jesus Navas broke upfield on the back of Fletcher’s disappointment in the 90th minute - City having five men onto Sunderland’s two - and the Spaniard took possession of Toure’s pass before driving a low shot goalwards which Mannone dived low to his left to block, but could only fingertip into goal to seal the outcome of the game.

Sunderland fans had dared to dream the impossible dream only for it to be cruelly dashed.

But ‘cruelty’, ‘sorrow’, ‘heartbreak’, hardly seem appropriate adjectives for a great game of football and a great advert for the game.

Wembley and sponsors Capital One deserve recognition for putting on a superb pre-match show.

The football had been good. The game, fascinating and unpredictable. The fans magnificent.

And Borini, Toure and Nasri had all entered their names into the pantheon of great Wembley goal-scorers on the same afternoon.

It was not a game of villains - not a game of mistakes, errors or controversial decisions.

It was a game of heroes - of individual excellence and of collective desire, a tale of wonderful effort on Sunderland’s part and crucial quality in the moments that mattered on City’s.

Sunderland lost.

They lost in the only way that matters in a cup final.

But they won in so many other ways.

And next weekend against Hull City in the FA Cup quarter-final, if they can produce a similarly impressive 90 minutes, they are likely to be going to Wembley