Praise Pellegrini

Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini holds aloft the trophy after winning their English League Cup final soccer match against Sunderland at Wembley Stadium in London March 2

One down, three to go.

Manchester City recovered from a risible first half to blow Sunderland away in the second and claim the League Cup on Sunday.

The Champions League may be beyond them this year, but the Treble - Premiership, FA Cup and League Cup - is still very much on.

Wonder goals from Yaya Toure, and then, just a minute later, Samir Nasri, broke the Black Cats' hearts and left them wondering what might have been.

Manuel Pellegrini, so often criticised for his lack of silverware, finally has a European domestic trophy to go with the ones he collected in South America. It was far from plain sailing.

Pellegrini risked accusations of recklessness when he chose to keep faith with reserve goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon who had played in every round of the competition, save for the quarter-finals and the brief period in which he was promoted to first choice.

Sergio Aguero was thrown straight into the starting line-up after recovering from injury. The Argentina forward hadn't played since limping out of City's 5-1 demolition of Tottenham Hotspur on Jan 29. For a time, it seemed that the dual gamble might backfire.

Sunderland began the game carefully, doing their best to keep the ball even if it meant playing it around in their own half. It seemed at first that they might be paying City too much respect.

But then they exploded into life. With Martin Demichelis and Vincent Kompany playing high up on the halfway line, the Black Cats began to chance a more direct style.

BREAKTHROUGH

The first big ball over the top was dealt with, the second proved crucial. Lee Cattermole won possession, slipped it to Adam Johnson, and the former City man lifted it into his former employers' half.

Fabio Borini, deployed as a lone striker, outran Demichelis and fought off Kompany. Left with a narrow angle and the imposing sight of Pantilimon, he deftly tucked the ball into the far corner with the outside of his right foot.

The Sunderland supporters erupted. Was this to be 1973 revisted? They weren't done there. With City rattled, they continued to push forward, enjoying room on the flanks behind the fullbacks.

They snapped at every ball, winning almost everything that was up for grabs. Borini could have added another before half-time, bursting through the lines again, only to be denied by a superb Kompany challenge at the last second.

City, by contrast, were slow and their moves kept breaking down through misplaced passes. They had to improve in the second half. They did improve. Dramatically. Whatever Pellegrini said at the break should be written down and kept in the vault for future generations.

Suddenly, they were first to every ball. Their runs were imaginative and probing. The players who had let them down in the first half, began to fire up their thrusters. Few City players had disappointed like Toure.

At his best, he is as remorseless as a terminator, clanking up down through the middle of the pitch. In the first half, he was a grave disappointment, lethargic and luckless.

 

He responded emphatically in the second. Picking up the ball some distance from outside the area in the 55th minute, he simply swung a foot like a golfer in a bunker and chipped the ball up and into the top corner of the net.

The goal revitalised his teammates. A minute later, City broke again. Sunderland's lines were broken and Samir Nasri almost ripped the back of the net out with his finish.

Vito Mannone had spoken earlier in the week of his hopes of emulating the legendary Sunderland stopper Jim Montgomery, whose unbelievable double save helped win the FA Cup for the Black Cats in 1973.

He had no chance with either goal. Sunderland shuffled the pack, bringing on Craig Gardner and Steven Fletcher; they won corners and made half chances. But there was always a sense that this was beyond them.

That it was one thing to catch City unawares. It was another to do it when they were focused and dominant. In the dying moments, Fletcher wasted a golden chance. Sixty seconds later, Jesus Navas scored a third. Such is football.

Sunderland should be proud of their efforts regardless. For City, this completes the set of domestic titles. They won the FA Cup in 2011, the league in 2012 and now the League Cup.

The next challenge is to hold all three titles at the same time. No team, not even Manchester United, have ever done that. If this game proved anything, it is that they certainly don't lack character. The quest to make history starts here.

l MAN CITY: Costel Pantilimon, Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta, Aleksandar Kolarov, Martin Demichelis, Samir Nasri, David Silva (Javi Garcia 77), Fernandinho, Yaya Toure, Edin Dzeko (Alvaro Negredo 88), Sergio Aguero (Jesus Navas 58).

l SUNDERLAND: Vito Mannone, Phil Bardsley, Wes Brown, John O'Shea, Marcos Alonso, Ki Sung Yueng, Sebastian Larsson (Steven Fletcher 60), Adam Johnson (Craig Gardner 60), Jack Colback, Lee Cattermole (Emanuele Giaccherini 77), Fabio Borini.

npsports@sph.com.sg

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