David Moyes’ transitional Manchester United team may only have narrowly lost on penalties in their League Cup semi final, but the defeat, for a club of United’s stature, felt just as embarrassing to them as West Ham’s 9-0 capitulation to Manchester City over two legs felt to the Hammers.
This begs the question: who has had the worst season so far, Moyes or Sam Allardyce? Fans, pundits and whatever-Michael-Owen-is can debate this, but it’s clear what we have learnt from the past two legs of the League Cup: that cup runs matter and can be a catalyst for an improved season elsewhere. Allardyce famously shrugged off any talk of his sacking after securing a 2-0 win away against Cardiff.
Of course, this victory was after a 5-0 loss against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup and a 6-0 drubbing by Manchester City in the League Cup. Allardyce chose a weakened side for Forest and starting elevens for both legs against City that showed little fight or a will to win, in sharp contrast to the heroics of the Sunderland side over their two legs against the other Manchester team.
Allardyce claims he was far more concerned with West Ham’s relegation battle, but Sunderland are also in the relegation dog-fight and have been spurred by their cup performances. Since Sunderland beat Chelsea in the quarter finals in December they have lost only once in nine games, in the process becoming the only team in the whole of 2013 to beat Everton at Goodison Park in the league. West Ham failed to utilise any of the positives from their victory against Spurs in the quarter finals to push on; in fact, West Ham have never won consecutive Premier League games under Allardyce.
West Ham’s lack of confidence is mirrored in the United team. One can’t help but feel a despondency in the United team, epitomised by poor penalties from Danny Welbeck and Phil Jones in the shoot-out defeat against the Black Cats. While United responded well to their League Cup quarter final victory against Stoke, the loss against Swansea at home in the FA Cup third round was a big one.
During Ferguson’s 26- year tenure, United only once went out of the FA Cup in the third round, and the defeat against Swansea was their fourth loss in six games at Old Trafford. United staying in the FA Cup, which they have not won since 2004, might have buoyed the team ahead of coming games. Instead, after the defeat against Sunderland they have only won once in 2014 out of six games.
Say what you will about the decline in importance of the domestic cups, but both continue to prove that the drama will never die and that a cup run can be a catalyst for change and hope. Just ask the 9,000 Mackems who travelled to Old Trafford.