Man United: We've Been Left Paralysed By The Grim Reality Of Our Position
As semi final second legs go, this was a wholly forgettable affair. Save for the strangeness of the atmosphere around Old Trafford, as the Manchester United faithful braved the cold to witness a capitulation by the current champions of England as lacking in self belief and fighting spirit as it was brimming, by the end, with incompetence from the penalty spot.
By that point the home crowd could be forgiven for thinking they had wondered into a farce rather than a football match, as spot-kick after spot-kick was ballooned about the place with darkly hilarious ineptitude by all and sundry, the net behind the goal bulging with more regularity than the one attached to the damn thing.
It was difficult not to slope away from this Theatre of Nightmares without harbouring the sense that this was as bad a performance as has been seen by these gathered spectators in decades. The whole sorry ordeal was a form of torture for fans who have grown accustomed to gorging themselves on glory for such a long time.
There was strangely scant reaction from the crowd. No boos; no howls for the manager's head on a spike. The atmosphere was more paralysing than poisonous, as tens of thousands of supporters collectively came to terms with their new world order, the grim reality of our predicament plunging us into a state of muted shock. At one point, during the second half of extra time, I physically shuddered, involuntarily, as one might do when attempting to shake off the remnants of a gruesome nightmare. Unfortunately though, there was no waking from this horror show.
The match itself was unremarkable, as two desperately poor teams flung themselves at one other with the reckless, unskilful abandon of a pair of young stags during rutting season. It is telling that one of the evening's biggest cheers came from a Sunderland player mis-controlling the ball as he set himself to batter United's penalty box with yet another mayhem-inducing cross.
There wasn't a single redeeming feature. Not one. Nothing for United fans to cling to, as the last vestiges of greatness, or even competence, from a team that romped to last season's title, were ripped asunder by a side that sit at the foot of the Premier League table after more than half a season.
Even Adnan Januzaj, the season's only revelation, seemed a naïve eighteen year old, shooting on sight, as if the burden of being this club's only potential saviour had suddenly begun to weigh heavily upon his slight shoulders.
There was no spark, no imagination, no creativity, no spirit and no leadership from either turf or touchline. Indeed, even David Moyes' substitutions, a feature of his management-game that had improved, for a time, in previous months, now reeked of incompetence, adding to the foul stench of mediocrity that hung in the air around the stadium.
He withdrew Shinji Kagawa, once again banished to the left, while ignoring the shocking display of Javier Hernandez, who somehow managed to stay on the pitch long enough to score a futile, undeserved, last-gasp goal. He is surely one of many players living on borrowed time.
He also kept Darren Fletcher, the only United player who managed to actually score from twelve yards, on the pitch for the game's entirety. This is a man who has only recently returned from nigh on two years enforced absence, thanks to an illness that, by all rights, should have ended his career. The sight of the Scot flinging his flailing legs hopelessly about with more passion but less energy than any of his teammates, as the match built to its dispiriting climax, was one of the most damning indictments imaginable on his pathetic team-mates.
By the time the crowd had finally roused themselves to perform a half-hearted rendition of 'Come on, David Moyes. Play like Fergie's boys,' deep into extra time, the ditty was tinged with more poignancy than vigour, more akin to a collective sob than a call to arms.
De Gea's last-minute gaff summed up United's season in a perfect microcosm of watching-through-the-fingers horror. Here was one of the only players yet to put a foot (or in this case finger) wrong this season, suddenly locked tight in the public stocks, for the watching world to fling rotten fruit at, as Phil Bardsley's shot squeezed past the Spaniard with the air of a practical joke.
All in all it was another torrid night for Moyes. This time, though, even he did not try to defend the players, who one cannot help but suspect are far from enamoured with their new boss, such has been their whimpering response to a truly wretched fall from grace.
Sunderland, over the course of the two legs, deserved to progress. Had this group of Manchester United waifs sneaked through, it would have been the footballing equivalent of a team squeezing themselves, like burglars, through to a cup final they had no right to contest, via the cat-flap.