David Moyes and his team might not be at that stage yet, but tonight’s second leg of the Capital One Cup semifinal is as big a test as any the former Everton manager has faced since replacing Sir Alex Ferguson in the Manchester United dugout last July.
Four defeats in the last five games are a damning statement of United’s current situation, last Sunday’s debacle against Chelsea doing nothing to dismiss the notion that United are merely a mid-table side attempting to punch above their weight – and failing miserably in the process.
Putting the Mata rumours aside for a second – the Spaniard might not fit the system, but have Tom Cleverley and Marouane Fellaini ever done so? – United have the chance to reach a cup final which, in theory at least, should be enough to have fans salivating with anticipation.
Except that it isn’t, for many Reds would rather avoid winning tonight than being beaten by City in the final.
“They’re too strong” these people lament, speaking of Manuel Pellegrini’s free scoring armada, gleefully ignoring that United didn’t turn down Champions League finals against Barcelona in 2009 and 2011 because the Catalans “looked too strong”.
With Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie still out, the onus to provide the goals required to book a ticket to Wembley is likely to fall upon Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez.
The Mexican netted yet again against Chelsea, while Welbeck must start scoring in these sort of games to prove that his development this season isn’t a mere flash in the pan and there’s no reason to doubt Danny, the only United player alongside Adnan Januzaj to look lively on Sunday.
The Belgian is again likely to be involved from the start and David Moyes will again place a lot of expectations on the youngster’s shoulders as United seek to reach a fourth League Cup final in eight years – incidentally, in the three previous occasions, United had always entered the second leg trailing.
The rest of the team virtually pick itself, with Chris Smalling lightly to replace the suspended Nemanja Vidic in the middle of the back four, while Rafael and Patrice Evra will take their usual spots at full-back and one between Tom Cleverley and Darren Flecther is expected to partner Michael Carrick in midfield.
More than anything else, though, United will need their fans. The away end that was so impressive at Stamford Bridge on Sunday will have to be just as loud, if the Reds are to overcome Sunderland.
Until 12 months ago it would have seemed an easy task, today is anything but.
However, United can still do it. After all, she wore a scarlet ribbon….