Shootout defeat leaves luck-starved Moyes facing serious questions about his ability to lead United to a golden future
The answer after this penalty shootout defeat should be straight to the gods to plead for them to finally smile on him. Before the contest the Scot said: "We find ourselves going into tonight's game desperate to give you supporters something to shout about, and winning this evening and booking a place in the final would give us all something to look forward to." With this loss that hope is now dead and the beleaguered manager will see Sunderland take on United's Manchester rivals in the Wembley showpiece. In the long term the serious questions about Moyes's ability to lead the club through its most challenging period in a generation continue. He is clear he can: "We all know our club is undergoing changes at present, but I have a clear path in my mind and I know where we are going."
The XI that Moyes plumped for was one to ponder. Despite saying he believed United played well in Sunday's 3-1 loss at Chelsea, out went Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, Phil Jones and Patrice Evra. Nemanja Vidic's suspension meant at least one switch in defence yet the injury concerns over Young and Evra did not prevent the Scot selecting them as reserves. Three days on from the Chelsea game meant match fitness was no issue, so if Evra and Young were healthy enough to sit on the bench why not start them? In Valencia, Moyes stood down another of his go-to men for big games and though Phil Jones was caught out for Chelsea's opener he had been selected out of position in defensive midfield in a first outing after injury, rather than at centre-back. Chris Smalling got the nod to replace Vidic here but he was again vulnerable under the high ball, one illustration coming when he gazed at a pass that sailed over him, allowing Fabio Borini to collect and worry David De Gea with a 25-yard attempt.
The creation deficit in United is hardly news for a side that, when missing Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, appear woefully short of invention and game-changers, Adnan Januzaj apart. The pass that the 18-year-old zipped through Marcos Alonso's legs to play in Rafael da Silva on 26 minutes oozed class and is precisely the kind of clever use of ball and space that the prospective £40m signing Juan Mata will add. The Spaniard is one of the rare lateral-thinking footballers who see a different game to those around him and use this vision to regularly split contests open. When United attacked here they too often reached the middle third of Sunderland's half and ran into a road-block, down blind alleys or just sideways. The hope for supporters is that the Spain international arrives to don the red shirt in a front trident alongside Rooney and Januzaj, with Van Persie ahead.
Four goals in the winger's last two outings – including a hat-trick in the 4-1 win at Fulham – had got the Sunderland No11's cheerleaders mentioning him as making a fresh case for an England recall before the World Cup in Brazil. A semi-final second leg of a cup competition with his side 2-1 up from the first game offers a rare opportunity to shine in the kind of way that might catch the eye. Instead, Adam Johnson was as muted as he had been in the closing days of his time at Manchester City and has in the main been since making the move to the north-east. The 26-year-old won one free-kick but that was hit straight at Danny Welbeck and when the ball came back to him Johnson was crowded out too easily by Shinji Kagawa and Alexander Büttner. When later he took on Januzaj and ran the ball out, it offered a precis of his disappointing evening, even after he was more involved in the second half, having one good chance charged down late on. To confirm it, his penalty in the shootout was palmed over by the United goalkeeper, David de Gea.
The good news for Sunderland is that a trip down Wembley Way for the chance to win the season's first pot is the prize after extra-time and penalties. The bad tidings are that the killing machine known as Manchester City are the opponents and if the prospect of facing Manuel Pellegrini's men does not bring trepidation, maybe it should. Put bluntly Sunderland are just not in City's class, so the ability of Gus Poyet to inspire his men now faces a serious examination. To beat the only side still in with a shout of an unprecedented quadruple, Sunderland will somehow have to find a way of halting Sergio Agüero and Álvaro Negredo, the forwards who have each scored 22 times this season. Yet even if both have a quiet day in the final – this has not occurred this season – then Yaya Touré, David Silva and Samir Nasri await, in a team at the height of their powers. Still, optimists will say this is sport and dust off the stand-by truism of football being a funny old game. It may need to be.