MANCHESTER, England — Manchester United’s wretched campaign reached a new low Wednesday after a penalty shootout defeat to Sunderland in a dramatic League Cup semifinal left the beleaguered English champions staring at a season without silverware.
Sunderland will play Manchester City in the March 2 final at Wembley Stadium after goalkeeper Vito Mannone saved Rafael da Silva‘s decisive spot kick to seal a 2-1 victory in the shootout, after the semifinal finished 3-3 on aggregate after 120 minutes.
With barely a minute left of extra time, United was on the brink of going through on away goals after Jonny Evans scored a 37th-minute header to make it 2-2 on aggregate. But the game swayed Sunderland’s way when United goalkeeper David de Gea fumbled in a shot from Phil Bardsley.
Javier Hernandez forced penalties, though, by scoring in the first minute of injury time.
“We did not play well enough on the night,” United manager David Moyes, who has just the Champions League title to go for in a tumultuous first season at Old Trafford, said.
“If we were going to [go through], we were going to stumble over the line and get through. It wasn’t because we played well enough.”
In a nervy shootout full of poorly taken penalties, Danny Welbeck and Phil Jones blazed shots over the bar for United, and Adnan Januzaj had an effort saved by Mannone, who then dived to his right to parry away Rafael’s attempt and earn Sunderland a first appearance in a major final in 22 years.
“Unbelievable, just unbelievable,” Mannone said.
Sunderland, which is fighting relegation in the Premier League, already has beaten City this season, but that was back in November. City hasn’t lost in 18 games since then and will be the heavy favorite.
“We need to be practically perfect to win,” Sunderland’s Uruguayan manager Gus Poyet said. “I hope we aren’t terrible and concede four or five goals.”
While Poyet was left to savor one of Sunderland’s greatest achievements, the misery continues for Moyes.
Rarely can a match in the oft-maligned League Cup have meant so much to England’s biggest club — and to its under-pressure coach, who admitted this was his biggest setback so far in his turbulent reign.
Sunday’s defeat to Chelsea virtually ended United’s hopes of defending its Premier League title, with barely half of the campaign gone, while the team already is out of the FA Cup. The Champions League now offers the only route to silverware this season, but winning Europe’s top prize is unlikely on current form, even if United received a benign draw against Olympiakos in the last 16.