WHEN Vito Mannone and the defence in front of him prevented Manchester United from finding a late equaliser in the midweek victory at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland edged a little bit closer to a first final in more than two decades.

Yet knowing there is still a second leg at Old Trafford to emerge from with a lead intact, Mannone knows only too well that now is not the time to be carried away.

After all, even if Sunderland can survive an expected onslaught from United a week on Wednesday and book a first Wembley final since 1992, there is a general feeling on Wearside that cup glory would not be enjoyed like it should if their league position has not improved.

Loading article content

Rooted to the foot of the Premier League after 20 matches, time is running out for Gus Poyet to lead a revival. Something needs to change if the Black Cats are to close the four point gap to safety and build from there.

What better place to start than at Craven Cottage today, where Fulham can hardly start to plan for another season of top-flight football in August either. The Sunderland players know it.

“The Fulham game is definitely more important now than Tuesday's first leg with Man United,” said Mannone. “I say that now because it is more than a final for us. We have to compete and make sure we take three points from Fulham.

“We need to open up to us the challenge of survival after dropping three points against Aston Villa. With the talent we have we can't show the talent one week and then not the next. We have to show it every week.

“The challenge every time you step on to the pitch is to show we are playing for our lives now, that's how dangerous the situation is for us. We need to get these three points.

“We still have 18 games to go and we need to take points. We lost to Fulham the first game here in August, we dominated the game here but we never won. That was three points gone. We need to beat the teams around us. We need to stay in touch with the group.”

The biggest frustration for Sunderland over the last six weeks was the manner in which they lost to Aston Villa on New Year's Day. After defeating Chelsea in the Capital One Cup quarter-final, Poyet led his team to a four match unbeaten run in the league. Then the Villa reversal arrived.

With confidence and optimism on the increase again after Tuesday's win over Manchester United, Poyet is keen to tune in to that by ensuring they transform their cup fortunes on to the league stage and climb to safety.

Mannone said: “It is a funny game. Somehow we produce great performances against the big clubs. We all talk with each other and we can't find the reason why we don't beat teams in around us.

“We need to focus. We have another final against Fulham and that will be a tougher game. We have to play to the same standards because the Premier League is so tough every game you play.

“We have to approach the game in the same way. I am tired of saying we have the team to compete, good ability and a good squad. You can tell when we play these games, we don't beat these big clubs with luck. That's four in a row.

“But we need to have the same attitude against the smaller teams. The smaller teams maybe put ten bodies behind, and it's more open against the better teams. We have to survive and give our all again.”

It has been a strange campaign for Mannone. While the Italian is disappointed and frustrated by Sunderland's Premier League plight, he is enjoying his best season since arriving from Atalanta eight years ago.

His performances have won over the doubters at the Stadium of Light who questioned the decision to spend £2m on a third-choice goalkeeper from Arsenal.

He said: “I'm on the pitch now and I'm enjoying it. I never got as many chances in the League Cup at Arsenal, so I never really got close to a final playing. Ask (Arsene) Wenger why?

“I'm glad to be here now though and I am really happy to be part of a team that can play the kind of game we did against Manchester United.”

The performance against United – however poorly the Premier League champions have been playing under David Moyes – provided plenty of encouragement to everyone on Wearside that night.

Mannone said: “It was a massive result. We were told to enjoy it, we had nothing to lose in a semi-final against one of the best teams in the country. It is a dream for everybody and the fans to go to Wembley, hopefully we can. We didn't fear anybody and we did very well.

“We dominated the game. That is important. We dominated against Manchester City for one half too. I didn't feel like Manchester United dominated us so much. We were in control. Even if they scored from a set piece, a good header, we reacted well and that should fill us with confidence for the league games.”