- League Cup final
City can use silverware as platform for success
Just as Sunderland seemed ready to start thinking about ending a 41-year trophy drought, they were blown away with two minutes of the most brilliant quality.
That is modern English football; that is the modern Manchester City. This League Cup final victory was really the continuation of a trophy run started back in 2011, but the key may be whether it moves them onto the next, more dominant phase; whether they can go from two trophies in three years to picking up many in the manner their famous neighbours have often done.
That will be the target, because in the process of their 3-1 win, new manager Manuel Pellegrini also claimed his first trophy in European football. The hope for City now must be that it solidifies the side as only a trophy can, and reinvigorates their Premier League title challenge.
The entire first half of this game, after all, seemed to illustrate exactly why a slightly flagging City side had lost top spot in the Premier League over the past month. As Sunderland tore into them and Fabio Borini ran through to give them a shocking lead inside 10 minutes, City toiled. Then, tens of millions of pounds of quality turned the tide, with the finishes and exquisite variety to match.
Yaya Toure curled a virtually perfect strike over Vito Mannone from distance in the 55th minute, before Samir Nasri thundered one past the goalkeeper with the side of his boot just 59 seconds later. The equaliser was ridiculously precise; the key second goal an example of pure rampant instinct.
That it took two goals of such exceptional quality to eventually win this game is testament to both teams, but particularly Sunderland.
In the first half, they sought to match City's superior resources in virtually the only way they could: with maximum application. The cliché around occasions like this is that one team "wanted it more", but for the first 45 minutes, that seemed to be exactly the case.
Sunderland were first to every ball. It was a masterful display of controlled aggression and intensity. The opening goal effectively summed that up. Lee Cattermole won the ball off Fernandinho deep in his own half, but rather than simply clear the danger, Gus Poyet's team sought to immediately create some themselves. A long ball forward found Borini, and he used opportunism and basic strength to brush the surprisingly hapless Vincent Kompany away before deftly swerving the ball around Costel Pantilimon with the outside of his foot.
And yet as impressive as that entire passage of play was, it's difficult not to bring the entire game - and Sunderland's real chance - back to the next duel between those same two players.
On 38 minutes, the ball bounced favourably in the City half for Borini to again run onto. Rather than power up or even cut inside, however, the Italian attempted to work himself into a similar angled position. That allowed an accelerating Kompany to race back and make a last-ditch challenge in excellent fashion.
The tackle was arguably where the game was won, and proved the point that Sunderland had failed to fully capitalise on their application. Because, in the second half, City woke up; they were jarred to life by one of those moments of genuine quality.
The irony was that Toure's tee-up was almost lazy. The finish was anything but. It was the most sensational mix of precision and power, curling the ball over Mannone from 30 yards out and into the top corner.
From there, with Sunderland's entire game plan now torn up, City ripped through them. An Aleksander Kolarov surge and cross was deflected back to the edge of the box, from where an onrushing Nasri rattled the ball into the corner.
No matter how hard they worked, Sunderland simply couldn't match that kind of quality. The only possible issue with witnessing two such outstanding efforts, however, was that two minutes where the game turned around effectively ruined the last half hour.
By that point, all of City's recent torpor had gone, and we were witness to something a little more akin to the ludicrous goal-scoring form of the first few months. Sunderland, by contrast, just couldn't muster the same aggression. The early sense that an upset may be on had evaporated into a grim realisation that they just couldn't match City's class.
As if to emphasise the point, substitute Jesus Navas offered one more moment of blistering quality to make it 3-1 with only minutes to go. City's celebrations suggested just how much the trophy meant to them.
Brian Clough once said the virtue of any silverware is that players get to like the taste of champagne and they want more. Manuel Pellegrini has finally sampled a distinctly European brand; City's more expensive tastes were apparent here.