The "Glory, Glory, Man United" anthem still rings out at Old Trafford, but there hasn't been much glory there of lately. Instead, there have been long faces, looking on aghast at just how much has gone wrong in this deeply troubled year. Manchester United need a big win, plain and simple, and the League Cup, in which United faces Sunderland in the first leg of the semifinals on Tuesday, provides just such an opportunity.
The fact that we're talking about a game against Sunderland - a team dead-last in the league -- as a must-win is shocking. But this is where the once-mighty United find themselves this season, a year in which disappointment is fast becoming the new norm.
United languish in seventh place in the league, and with six losses and four draws to just 10 wins, they are no longer contenders to retain their title. On Sunday, the Red Devils were bounced from the third round of the FA Cup in a 2-1 loss to Swansea City , a team that had never before won at the so-called Theatre of Dreams. They remain in contention in the Champions League - and were given a very soft round of 16 tie against Olympiakos - but no one expects them to contend for that crown, either.
So, Tuesday's affair at the Stadium of Light has suddenly taken on an outsized importance to United - relative to that tournament's low standing in the pantheon of silverware anyway. Should they make it past Sunderland, they would set up an all-Manchester final with City , their now-superior foes. (That's assuming the Citizens have no trouble discarding West Ham United in their own semifinals, of course.)
The problem is, there are doubts: Sunday's match exposed yet more of the flaws inherent in United's game this season. They made some assertive moves and still have considerable attacking means. But whereas the teams of David Moyes' mythical predecessor Sir Alex Ferguson had a knack for sucking the oxygen out of a game with their sheer dominance, Moyes' has let even a modestly talented opponent like the Swans make the play against them. And that makes them vulnerable.
So, winning this sort of high-stakes game, slated for Wembley Stadium on March 2, could work wonders for United's bruised psyche. It would remind players of what they once were, and can be again. Certainly, scaling the League Cup mountain wouldn't bring United to an altitude anywhere close to where they resided previously. But a trophy won typically begets more trophies. And vice versa - just ask Arsenal and their almost decade-long silverware drought.
But there are three games to get through first. And the first one promises to be as arduous as the next two. Relegation-threatened sides have a funny habit of punching above their weight in the cup competitions. Perhaps because they have nothing to lose, with expectations on them withered down to almost nothing. Or perhaps they are galvanized by the reprieve of a competition in which their chances aren't quite so bleak.
Either way, Wigan Athletic won last year's FA Cup, beating mighty Manchester City in the final, before being relegated from the Premier League. Birmingham City did the same in 2011, winning the League Cup just before dropping down to the Championship.
Sunderland are just such a side, backed into a corner in the league yet thriving in the League Cup. Their fortunes have improved only marginally since they fired manager and loose cannon Paolo Di Canio in October and replaced him with the steadier Gus Poyet. Yet they remain dead last. That obvious frustration, however, seems to have manifested itself in a surprising run in this tournament.
The Black Cats knocked out the season's sensations Southampton in the fourth round. Then they eliminated Chelsea with an 88th minute equalizer from Fabio Borini and an extra-time winner in the 119th minute by Ki Sung-Yueng in the quarterfinals.
Through the luck of the draw, Sunderland won't play its first away game in this tournament until the return leg on Jan. 22 after five ties at home. And they will hope to conserve the advantage by keeping their nets empty. Such a mindset would suit their personnel rather well, allowing them to counter-punch on the break, revolving around the American striker Jozy Altidore's reliable hold-up play.
United will be forced to run the game and break down their opponents, something they have struggled mightily with this year. But then it's been a season of struggles. And in this game an opportunity presents itself to start turning things around. To win something -- anything.