League Cup Final: Manchester United 1-1 Tottenham Hotspur aet (United win 4-1 on pen)

Well, what a massively different experience this was. Compared to a year ago, not only did we not win, but there wasn’t quite the same buzz about it all. It was a strange sort of day.

One that started early with a train up to London. I’ve wised up now. Buy yourselves a couple of tins from Tesco. Much cheaper than buying them on the train!

A spot of lunch at my sister’s and we headed for Wembley. No doubt about it, the crowds felt bigger pre-match. Unlike last season when there were very few Chelsea fans in sight, this time around, there were plenty of ManUre supporters knocking around. Spurs fans too – obviously.

Wembley from afar

Before the game I had a good long think about our squad. Before it was even announced. I thought to myself – “Hmmmmm….. Gomes, two out of King, Woody, Dawson….. probably BAE and Charlie….. Jenas and Zokora….. Lennon….. Pav….. then two out of Modric (most likely), Bent, O’Hara, Bentley…..”. Overall, pretty decent side. OK, not one to compete with the very best that ManUre had to throw at it, but maybe good enough on the day.

The biggest weakness, I decided, was undoubtedly in the attacking department. Whether we went one up front or two, Pav and/or Bent just didn’t inspire confidence.

Spurs against ManUre – as if you didn’t know!

This year we’d secured seats much closer to the action. It was a great view – as I think pretty much every seat at Wembley is. The usual pre-match razzamatazz was there in full effect too. Big posters of Bagpuss and Red Nose….. big black balloon type things with player names and numbers underneath them….. flags in the Spurs end….. red carrier bags in the United end (I worked out what they were for shortly afterwards). Oh yes, it was all there, but for some reason, it wasn’t quite the ferocious atmosphere from last year.

Bagpuss and Rednose

Player banners

So that’s what all those carrier bags in the United end were for…..

I can only imagine this was for a number of reasons. First off, last season was our first in a cup final for blimmin’ ages. Not that getting to Wembley twice has lost any of its importance, but there is a difference. Secondly, last season we played Chelsea, and we were desperate to put them right in their place. Third, we’d secured our place at Wembley with a 5-1 thumping of the Gooners and were in a very rich vein of form.

This year, none of those things were true. Having said that, it was still going to be massive, and as the sides came out, those hairs on the back of my neck were standing on end again. This is what it really comes down to. One game to secure glory. One game to retain the League Cup. One game to get ourselves back into Europe.

United were true to their word and sent out some of their youngsters, but this was by no means a weak side. O’Shea, Ferdinand, Evra, Ronaldo, Scholes, Nani, Tevez….. all players that would probably walk into most Premier League sides. This was going to be a tough ask.

The support was there from the Spurs fans of course. It always is. We wondered what the ‘fan-o-meter’ would say. Surely a massive victory for the Spurs faithful? Ultimately it was just a useless gimmick, but as Gary Mabbutt had said, if last year’s final could have been decided by supporter power, we’d have won it by four or five. The same looked like it was going to be true this year.

Wembley pre-match

Sadly for us, games are won on the pitch, not by the supporters in the stands, and it was United who had the better of the early exchanges. Ronaldo had a couple of early chances. One from a free kick that was fired well over. Another from a good move down the right which ended with a shot into Gomes’s arms.

The exchanges were fairly even though. We had a couple of decent moves of our own, but nothing that really presented a decent effort on goal.

With fifteen minutes played it all felt a bit tepid, both on and off the pitch. The most excitement was actually arguing with Spurs supporters in our sector about standing up and sitting down. It was really quite funny.

“Sit down! We’re trying to watch the game. We can’t see!”

My reponse – well effing stand up then! Honestly, in a Cup Final to expect everybody to sit and applaud politely, I just wonder. My sister was rather more forthright.

“When you’ve got a ticket from a trip to the Ukraine, you can tell me what to do. Until then **** off.”

The bloke stood next to her asked whether she’d really been to the Ukraine and when the answer was in the affirmative, he said – “Well, I take my hat off to you. They can’t tell you what to do!”.

She is gonna live off that one trip for a long, long time!

Anyway, back to the game. After that tepid start, United once again had the better of the game. Nani forced a save from a corner on the left and United had a decent bit of possession, but still no real threat.

We gave almost as good as we got, a lovely ball slipping Lennon in, but he couldn’t quite get the ball across.

Defensively we looked absolutely fine. Despite Woody having failed a fitness test, the back line was going about its job without too much hassle. BAE covered well as Ronaldo broke and attempted a cross, and this led to the greatest danger until then in the first half. We found it difficult to clear our lines, and from the edge of the box Ferdinand had a pop and managed to send it just over, the ball landing on top of the net.

A nice Spurs move then saw Luka cut the ball to Bent on the right, but his shot was all too easily saved.

It was about that time that the ref really started to get on the nerves of Spurs fans. He hadn’t had a lot to do until then, but what he had done seemed to go United’s way. Then he gave them what was a really, really poor free kick decision. It was to be the first of many!

The chances were still hard to come by, although Lennon was having quite a lot of success. He got in on the right with a little jink, and from what would have been a really good position, he was blocked out.

Zokora then did what he does best – no, not squander possession(!) – manage a strong run and was upended. The free kick, though, came to nothing. Soon after he coupled the strong run, getting into a great position, with a terrible cross. More like normal service, eh?!

The last chance of the half for United – last half-chance I should say – was blocked on the right side of our box.

Right on half time Jenas got properly stuck in and from there the ball was worked to Lennon who couldn’t really do anything with it depsite being in a really good position.

The whistle blew, and I headed for the facilities. I dunno if the description of that first half makes it sound like it was really entertaining, because it wasn’t. It was really all half chances. Some nice possession, but no threat, no incision from either side. It was OK, but it never reached the heights of a year ago.

Pretty much the entire half time interval was spent queuing for the toilets. Wembley still hasn’t got that right. By the time I got back to my seat the teams were coming out, and I stood there thinking to myself – “Man, they are there for the taking today” – in much the same way I had thought up at OT a few weeks back. Would we see a second half performance like that at OT, i.e. with minimal effort, or one with a bit of passion that carried us to another victory?

The initial signs weren’t good. It all looked a bit….. well….. tame again.

United had the early chances, Ronaldo going down very, very easily then firing the free kick well over, then breaking dangerously into the box. We kept the ball out fairly comfortably still.

The ref continued to alienate the Spurs contingent, failing to produce a yellow card for what an awful tackle on Lennon. Sadly, direct from the free kick, Pav had a go at an outrageous shot and….. well, let’s just say it as woeful. He had hardly been in the game, and this contribution did little to change that fact.

Another yellow that wasn’t given was for a foul on Modric from a good break. That ref….. he was beginning to infuriate me.

The positive, though, was that we were now beginning to assert some kind of authority on the game. OK, not dominance, but certainly we were seeing the better of the ball, and while United may not have been rattled, the tempo of the game seemed to be moving very much in our favour.

Jenas then had a pop, trying a little shot off the outside of his boot. Neat idea, but takes some skill to execute, and it was high and wide.

Finally(!), the ref produced a yello card for another poor foul by United. The free kick from a dangerous position was punched clear by Foster. As I watched it I couldn’t help remember last year’s injury time Woody effort. It looked almost a carbon copy, except that Foster got there first! Shame.

Pav then came up with another crap shot from the left after a good run by Luka, and didn’t see much more of the game, taken off in favour of O’Hara. That meant a bit of a switch of formation, but as we weren’t exactly looking great with the starting formation, it wasn’t like it was going to disrupt the flow of things, particularly considering how poor Pav had been.

United then came close after a corner pinged around in the box. Thankfully, no funny bounce off the ground, or somebody shin or arse, and the Spurs goal was still intact.

The ref then got two more decisions wrong, firstly awarding a free kick to Ronaldo after Modric emerged with the ball, then giving a throw when it looked like a clear foul on Modric. Ronaldo gave it the ‘diver’ signs, and reminded me of what a dirty little cheat he really is. Considering some of the shockingly easy falls he’d already taken – not a couple of mintues before – how he can have the bare faced cheek to claim that Modric is a diver….. Nasty piece of work he is. I don’t like him.

Bit of flag waving during a break in play

Still, we were on top of the game. OK, no great, clear cut chances, but we were the better of the two teams.

Then, perhaps, the ref gave one in our favour. Standing at the other end of ground it was difficult to see, but Ronaldo went down under a challenge from King. At first I thought the ref had given it to them, but then realised he had booked Ronaldo. I gather it was a shout for a pen, but having not bothered to watch any of the replays I still wouldn’t want to say.

It was looking quite good for us though. What we needed to do was convert! Not something we looked all that capable of managing with our strikeforce.

No surprises, then, that it was Lennon who had the best chance of the match for either side. Lennon was in on the right side of the box, similar to when he sent the ball into the back of the net against Chelsea a couple of seasons ago at The Lane. This time he didn’t have to beat the defenders, and from a great position he unleashed a belter of a shot that looked headed for the far corner, only for Foster to save really, really well.

It was a top, top chances. With, what? Twenty minutes – maybe less – to go, it could have sealed the game, but give Foster credit, it was a good save.

United did still have the odd chance. O’Hara gave the ball away badly and cheaply in the middle of the pitch, but United couldn’t capitalise.

Then Anderson got in on the Ronaldo acting as Jenas brushed him aside. Anderson was asking for the free kick. It never came! I wonder if that’s the Ronaldo technique rubbing off on him? Or whether he’s just like that?

The ref then got it wrong again, awarding a free kick late on in the centre of the pitch. It looked to me like the only reason he had was because it had come off his arse on the way through in the first place!

As the minutes ticked away and we looked destined for extra time – again – Lennon got in with the ball again, but his path was blocked, and then United came as close as they had to scoring. Ronaldo ran with the ball into the box and whacked it. All I saw was the ball pinging off the post and out into a safe area. That was pretty much the last kick of the game, and it would have won it for United. Looking at the replay on the screen, I reassured myself that Gomes would have had it covered had it been an inch the right side of the post!

Off we went then, extra time for the second season running, except this time, against a side well used to it in the finals of major competition.

Immediately Scholes kicked one straight out of play, and I hoped that this would set the tone for United’s play. We had easily bettered them in the last half hour of the game, and my hope was that we hadn’t expended all our energy there only to capitulate in extra time.

As it turned out, we had close to blown ourselves out. There was no more pace and Lennon had to go off toward the end of the first period with what looked like a groin strain. We poked and prodded, trying to work an opening, but never with any directness.

In contrast, United, when they had the ball, had a go at a quick break, and with Giggs on, there was always the prospect that they’d work something.

As it turned out they didn’t really, and one player on our side who did seem to have the legs was Jenas. He made up loads of ground to break up a United attack, then release Luka, who in turn released Bale who ran onto the ball brilliantly, only to have the chance snuffed out.

At the end of the first period of extra time there still didn’t look much chance of the deadlock being broken. As the second period started O’Hara had to goes in quick succession. Bentley then wasted one from a good position on the left, firing his free kick over the top when a decent delivery may have posed United more problems.

Tevez then had a pop, sending it high, before another great Spurs chance. Modric broke into the box on the diagonal and the ball was worked to Bent on the far side of the box. A goal now would have settled it, but Foster did superbly again to snuff out the danger at Bent’s feet. Don’t suppose we could have expected any more from our less than cutting edge strikeforce, but it looked like we were heading for penalties.

A last minute of heart in mouth followed for us, just as it had in normal time with that Ronaldo shot. Evra absolutely smashed one from outside the box, low, and fortunately wide. Phew!

So penalties it was.

I wanted to believe. I really did, but deep down I just didn’t have the confidence. Looking at the players we had left on the pitch and weighing things up against a side who had won the Champions League in a shootout….. deep down, I just didn’t think we’d do it.

The pens were taken at the United end, and Giggs got things started for them, striking it in off the post – the lucky bugger – even with Gomes going the right way.

O’Hara then stepped up for us. An odd decision I thought, but fair play to the lad for having the balls to go up. The noise from the ManUre fans was as loud as they’d been all game. O’Hara popped it up and Foster saved. Oh no. Oh no. It was a lovely height for the keeper. Not the greatest of penalties and we were behind.

Gomes went the right way again for United’s second, but there was no way he was going to get down as far as was needed.

Our second was taken by Corluka. Experienced, composed….. been there before. Down the middle, and we were on the scoresheet. Some hope restored.

Ronaldo stepped up for United’s third and made no mistake, smashing it down the middle.

Bentley went forward for our third. A chance to redeem his thus far poor season. He pulled it horribly wide. It was a piss poor penalty. Not the worst I’ve seen, but bad enough. The ManUre fans celebrated, knowing victory was now within their grasp, and the Spurs fans started leaving. I could understand why. We were still in with a very outside chance, but I don’t think any of us thought we could pull it back from here.

Sure enough, we couldn’t. Anderson went forward knowing that if he scored United would secure the League Cup and he duly obliged.

The scenes we’d had in our end of the ground a year ago were now witnessed in the opposite end. It was a bitter pill to swallow. A lot of Spurs fans had already started to leave, but just as many had stuck around to applaud the effort.

Leaving Wembley

Let’s be clear – it was a good effort. In the immediate aftermath I couldn’t exactly have asked for more. We had taken United to penalties, probably edged normal time because of how well we’d played in the last half hour of normal time, but ultimately fallen at the final hurdle.

No silverware this year then, and in that bizarre twist that seems to have manifested itself in the League Cup, having won it last year, we lost it this. There are a fair few times that’s happened in the past.

The effort was to be commended. Really it was. Neither side set the world alight, and it was a very different game to last year, but the more it feels like water under the bridge, the more upset I get about it now.

The most stark thing was that had we had a couple of top notch strikers, I reckon we could’ve won this. My fears pre-match about the front line being our weakness were amply demonstrated to be true. I took no pleasure whatsoever from this.

Penalties were heartbreaking, of course, but the choice of penalty takers posed questions this morning when a Pompey-supporting mate of mine asked whether I thought we’d had the right players up there. I dunno. Can you blame that on Bagpuss? At least O’Hara had the balls to go up there and take one. We never got a chance to have our fourth and fifth kicks. I’d have liked to have at least seen us give ourselves the chance to do that. Bent and Modric going up earlier maybe?

The Jenas substitution was also odd. At a time when penalties were looking favourite, to sacrifice him in favour of Bale? Didn’t really make sense to me.

Sadly, those things pale into insignificance when you compare them to the contribution that Pav made. Close to nothing I’d say. I do wonder about him.

There was plenty good. Defensively we were good – King was superb. How he didn’t cramp up like so many others I just can’t fathom. What a loss to Tottenham, and to England, that he can never be fit enough to play regularly.

Lennon was really, really good. This has been his best season for a while. Compared to Bentley….. well, probably the best thing about the Bentley transfer is that its forced Lennon to raise his game.

Modric too I thought was excellent. He clearly relished this game. A big match against a big side. What he needs to do is replicate it in the league against ‘lesser’ opposition, on crappy nights in the rain, far from London.

Ah well. There you go. Whatever happened yesterday, the focus from now on was always going to the league. ‘Boro must be loving it. Extra time and penalties ahead of a game on Wednesday after they’ve just come off a 2-0 win over Liverpool. We are going to have to raise our game again.

Sucker for punishment that I am, I’m even going to The Lane for the FAYC game on Thursday night! Hoping to grasp some thin thread for glory.

All our cup involvement is over for another season now. Twelve games to go, and Premier League survival now the only distraction. No excuses from here on. We have to stay up.

The sad part about things – leaving aside defeat, the clear imbalance left in the squad from the previous regime, etc, etc, etc – no European football next season. Can’t believe it. No European away days! Of course, somebody’s always happy. The missus now reckons I’ll have more money to spend on her!

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