SUNDERLAND dared to dream and threatened to achieve the incredible in the Capital One Cup final, but in the end the attempts to end a 41-year wait for major silverware came up just short at Wembley.
The challenge proved just too great, as the free-spending and free-flowing Manchester City found their feet to leave the Black Cats deflated but far from disgraced.
Seconds after the final whistle had blown, Sunderland full-back Phil Bardsley dropped to his knees in the centre circle trying to hold back his emotions, knowing the first half performance of near perfection had raised hope of a Wembley win.
As Bardsley battled to control himself, his team-mates trudged disconsolately around the wet surface as runners-up. It was not the outcome they had wished for, but the reception they received from the 40,000 fans from Wearside was exactly what they deserved.
While everyone associated with Manchester City danced in delight at the opposite end of the pitch to celebrate lifting the Capital One Cup, it would have been easy for their Sunderland counterparts to disappear in frustration.
Instead the vast majority stayed around to applaud the Sunderland players who battled until the very last moments in the hope of stunning one of European football's biggest forces.
Despite 33 points and 16 places separating the two clubs in the Premier League, it was Sunderland who dominated the majority of the first half. Defending strongly, attacking purposefully and deservedly claiming the upperhand inside ten minutes.
It was Fabio Borini, the man on loan from Liverpool, who became the first Sunderland player to find the net in a cup final since 1973's FA Cup triumph, when he angled a delightful finish beyond Costel Pantilimon.
Sunderland had their noses in front and even threatened to extend their advantage. But two wonderful goals in two minutes from Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri shortly after half-time turned the final around. Sunderland suddenly had to chase the game.
Rather than cave in, Sunderland never gave up. Pushing until the dying stages, creating one or two great chances along the way, before Manchester City broke down the other end in stoppage-time to add a third through Jesus Navas.
City midfielder Fernandinho brings down Lee Cattermole in a midfield tussle
Chilean Manuel Pellegrini was left to savour his first trophy in English football, while his fellow South American Gustavo Poyet had to take pride in the performance and move on.
There might be the possibility of a return to Wembley in the FA Cup this season and a Premier League relegation fight to focus on, but this first outing under the towering North London arch almost had the fairytale finish. There might have been a degree of scepticism about Poyet's team selection beforehand, but that soon disappeared after a first half display full of every ingredient the Uruguayan must have hoped for.
After surviving the early spell of expected pressure from Manchester City, Sunderland grew in confidence from the moment Lee Cattermole picked out Borini with a delightful ball in to the corner.
To counter-attack with confidence was clearly the directive delivered from the top and, having threatened moments earlier with the earlier one, Borini made no mistake the second time around.
After Mannone had got down low to his right to deny Sergio Aguero, Cattermole gained control in front of his box. He played a short pass inside to Seb Larsson, who turned it over again to Johnson.
The former City winger, clearly hungry to shine on the stage where he won the FA Cup in 2011, floated an inviting pass behind the defence for Borini to chase.
The 22-year-old's first touch was with his chest, which got him away from the normally dependable Vincent Kompany, and he stroked the sweetest of finishes with the outside of his right boot from a tricky angle.
Sunderland had the lead. Every tactic deployed by Poyet had the desired effect. Larsson, asked to play through the middle rather than Jack Colback who found himself on the left, linked play neatly alongside Ki Sung-Yueng.
While Cattermole and Colback tracked any runners, broke up play and generally set the tone during an opening period when Sunderland could easily have been more than a goal up.
Borini justified his inclusion ahead of Jozy Altidore, who was completely left out of the match-day squad, by tormenting both Kompany and Martin Demichelis and he might have had a second had his volley on the edge of the area not taken a deflection over the bar.
The loan signing from Liverpool, already a goal-hero in the previous two rounds with Chelsea and Manchester United, had an even greater chance seven minutes before the break – even if it should never have been allowed.
When Larsson tried to bring down a long ball from Marcos Alonso, the Swede got a touch and flicked it beyond the Manchester City defence. Borini was clearly a yard offside but the flag stayed down.
He struggled to get the ball from under his feet as he charged clean through on goal, allowing Kompany just enough time to get back and block the shot for a corner.
It was a miss which proved crucial. Manchester City did not take long to exert their extra quality after the restart. There was no way of stopping the equaliser.
There was no indication of what was to follow when Pablo Zabaleta rolled a pass inside to Toure, who stood 25 yards from goal and undetected even if there were plenty of bodies in front of him.
Rather than take a touch, Toure shaped himself before curling an exquisite first time shot with the inside of his right foot high over the crowded area and directed it perfectly inside Mannone's top right corner.
That was the lift Manchester City needed and the blow Sunderland had been so desperate to avoid. Before the underdogs had regrouped they found themselves behind less than two minutes later.
This time Aguero brought the ball down and played Aleksander Kolarov down the line. His delivery took a slight deflection on its travels through the area and Nasri arrived on cue to power a quality first time finish to Mannone's right.
Undeterred Sunderland kept going, with Ki particularly influential through the middle after three of the big performers in the first half – Cattermole, Larsson and Johnson - were all replaced.
Ki gifted substitute Steven Fletcher a late chance which would have forced extra-time. The Scotland international, clearly shorn of confidence after a spell out injured, awkwardly chose to let the South Korean's knock down run when he should have volleyed right-footed from an unmarked position just six yards out. Instead Manchester City survived.
Right until the last moments Sunderland pressed. There was a crunching, but fair, tackle from Fernandinho as Emanuele Giaccherini tried to weave his way in to the box.
Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany with the Capital One Cup
That sparked a City break. With space everywhere, and Toure running in full flow towards the Sunderland area. He had options left and right, he rolled in to the path of Jesus Navas and the little Spaniard drilled in the decisive third.
The dream Sunderland had dared to think about had died.