Full-time: Man United 2 Sunderland 1 (AET - Sunderland win 2-1 on penalties)
THERE have been some remarkable moments in the history of Sunderland Football Club. It is hard, however, to imagine anything comparing to this.
Not content with producing two of the most mind-boggling minutes of football ever seen as the second leg of their Capital One Cup semi-final reached an incredible climax at the end of extra-time, Sunderland also conjured up one of the most unbelievable penalty shoot-outs ever witnessed to reach Wembley.
Loading article content
Miss three of your five penalties, and you're normally left with your heads in your hands. Last night, however, Manchester United missed four, with Vito Mannone's save from Rafael sending more than 9,000 travelling fans into delirium as Sunderland triumphed 2-1 on spot-kicks.
“We're going to Wembley,” they chorused at the final whistle. They are, although you doubt even they can quite comprehend how their team achieved it.
Craig Gardner, Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson all missed spot-kicks – the latter with an effort that would have settled things – but thanks to successful efforts from Marcos Alonso and Ki Sung-Yueng, Rafael still strode forward needing to score.
His task would have been simpler had one of Danny Welbeck, Adnan Januzaj or Phil Jones joined Darren Fletcher in scoring, but like his three team-mates, the Brazilian full-back also failed to find the net. Even by Manchester United's desultory standards this season, that was quite a way to lose.
It was a truly incredible shoot-out, but it merely matched the drama of an extra-time period that was utterly unbelievable itself.
Trailing to Jonny Evans' 37th-minute header, Sunderland were heading out when the game headed into the penultimate minute of extra-time. Then the unthinkable happened. Twice.
When David De Gea allowed Phil Bardsley's 119th-minute daisy-cutter to squirm apologetically from his grasp, it appeared as though the Manchester United goalkeeper had single-handedly ushered Sunderland to Wembley.
The celebrations in the away ranks were passionate, but they also proved premature when Manchester United swept up the opposite end of the field to grab a most of dramatic of equalisers through Javier Hernandez's conversion of Januzaj's cross.
It felt as though Sunderland's dreams had been shattered. In fact, they had only been temporarily shelved.
The victory means the Wearsiders can look forward to a first League Cup final appearance in almost three decades, and a first final appearance of any description since 1992. They still have to avoid relegation of course, but a season that started so catastrophically under Paolo Di Canio could still have a glorious end. The challenge of facing a rampant Manchester City can wait for another day.
Yesterday's victory came with an unforgettable crescendo, but Sunderland's success owed much to the effort and commitment that enabled them to match Manchester United through 210 minutes of action.
The avoidance of an early concession was their initial aim last night, and they were indebted to the reflexes of Vito Mannone in the sixth minute as he kept out Hernandez's header from Januzaj's free-kick.
They threatened on the counter-attack when Johnson delivered a pinpoint long-range pass that arced into Fabio Borini's path, and while the Italian drilled a dipping half-volley over the crossbar, a point had been made. This was not going to be about Sunderland solely looking to preserve their first-leg advantage.
That was always going to be their primary focus of course, but in Januzaj, Manchester United always possessed the game's most creative force. As the youngster gradually began to dominate his personal battle against Alonso, so the hosts were slowly able to generate the kind of momentum that has eluded them in recent months.
They came within inches of claiming the lead when Fletcher guided Rafael's cross against the base of the post, with Mannone again springing to Sunderland's rescue as he kept out Welbeck's rebound. It was only to be a temporary escape.
Moments later, Welbeck flicked Januzaj's corner into the six-yard box, and an unmarked Evans guided home a close-range header.
There was a degree of controversy about the goal as Shinji Kagawa appeared to flick the ball as it went out for a corner, but any sympathy towards Sunderland dissipated once the sloppiness of their defending was assessed.
John O'Shea switched off completely as he failed to track Evans' run, with the goal making it 11 set-piece concessions already this season.
Needing to score at some stage to progress, Johnson dragged a 20-yard effort narrowly wide at the start of the second half, and it was noticeable that Gustavo Poyet instructed his players to push at least 20 yards further forward as a team after the interval.
The ploy enabled the Black Cats to harry their opponents out of possession, but the lack of a telling final ball to Steven Fletcher was a weakness.
Manchester United's lack of a cutting edge was equally apparent though, with Januzaj slicing a decent opportunity horribly wide and neither Kagawa nor his replacement, Antonio Valencia, really offering anything in the way of creativity from the opposite flank.
As time went on, the hosts' nervousness became increasingly apparent. Passes went astray as nails were chewed, and Sunderland's confidence grew accordingly.
Johnson chested down Borini's cross, only to see his shot blocked by Buttner. Smalling appeared to haul down Fletcher as he threatened to race clear, only for play to be waved on. Alonso whistled an angled drive inches past the far post.
It felt like things were building to a climax, but the final minutes of normal time failed to produce a resolution, and Sunderland were forced to take more and more chances in extra-time as Manchester United's away goal threatened to tell.
Craig Gardner curled a free-kick over the top, but the hosts wasted a glorious chance to effectively put the game to bed when Hernandez curled wide after Januzaj's through ball had sent him breaking clean through.
It looked like being decisive when De Gea spilled Bardsley's shot, but the pendulum swung again when Hernandez scored. At that stage, though, the drama was only beginning.