Capital One Cup Final: Sunderland tries to end 40-year drought against favored Manchester City

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Wigan Athletic, Birmingham City, and Middlesbrough have all had to deal with Sunderland’s dilemma. All three recently won cups (Wigan claiming last year’s FA Cup; Birmingham City winning the 2010 League Cup; while Boro snared the same honor in 2004). All three went down at the end of their seasons, leaving clubs to balance the glory of silverware against the pain of relegation from the Premier League.

Sunderland is the latest club to sit under this Sword of Damocles. While blessed with a spot in a Sunday’s Carling Cup final, the Black Cats also sit 18th in the Premier League, their push up the first division standings recently blunted by a 4-1 loss at Arsenal. Once again, relegation is a pressing concern, but if given the choice between success on Sunday and staying alive in the Premier League, Sunderland boss Gus Poyet would gladly raise the cup.

“The feeling of winning something is far beyond going down, spending two years in the Championship,” Poyet told The Guardian, the Uruguayan coach previously serving with Brighton & Hove Albion in the second division. Having replaced former Black Cats’ boss Paolo Di Canio earlier this season, Poyet has come to appreciate the plight of a supporter base whose club hasn’t claimed a major honor since 1973.

“You need to be here for 20 years and feel it like them, or not reach a final for 15 years, or not win one for more than 40,” Poyet said. “Only the people who have been here in the city supporting the club for so long really know. They have the feeling, not me. Me, I can say it but I can’t feel it. You need to listen to them and that’s why it’s an incredible opportunity.”

That opportunity is still seen as long-shot by most, with Manchester City set to lineup against Sunderland on Sunday at Wembley Stadium. Boasting one of the most talented teams in Europe, the Citizens are in fourth place in the Premier League, with their two games in hand on league-leading Chelsea making them most likely team to keep the Blues from a second title in four years. But they’re also a team Sunderland hasn’t lost to all season, with the Black Cats pulling an upset in City’s league visit to the Stadium of Light.

“It is always dangerous playing against any team,” Pellegrini said in the lead up to the game, downplaying the gap in quality the Premier League standings imply. “Sunderland have a lot of motivation to win this cup, the same as any team.

“I am sure we are the favourites but we cannot forget that Sunderland eliminated Chelsea and Manchester United – big teams.”

source: AP
Yaya Touré, who has scored 13 Premier League goals this season from midfield, is one of the world-class talents Manchester City will bring to Wembley Stadium for Sunday’s Carling Cup Final. (Source: AP.)

While nobody will forget Sunderland’s rout to Wembley (or their place in the FA Cup’s quarterfinals), equally unforgettable will be the power at Pellegrini’s disposal. Whereas the Black Cats may rely on U.S. international Jozy Altidore up top, Manchester City will likely have Sergio Agüero and Álvaro Negredo, a duo that has combined for 24 Premier League goals (Altidore: 1). Yaya Touré and Fernandinho form one of the best midfield duos in England, a pair that’s complemented by David Silva and Samir Nasri’s quality wide. Central defender Vincent Kompany and right back Pablo Zabaleta provide world-class options, while veterans Wes Brown and John O’Shea anchor the Sunderland back line. Against a team staving off a trip to the second division, City have an embarrassment of riches.

“The pressure is always exactly the same for all the teams,” Pellegrini said, speaking of expectations to deliver his first trophy with City. “The pressure is a personal pressure – for managers, players, all of us. I think we have the same pressure to win.”

All of which is coach-speak, of course. As last year’s FA Cup final showed, the pressure on City is much much greater than what’s put on an underdog. After the Citizens lost that final to the eventually relegated Wigan, Roberto Mancini was fired. While Pellegrini’s in no danger of meeting the same fate, his team is still expect to claim Sunday’s honors.

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

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Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday ]

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

[ MORE: One dream January signing for each top-six side ]

Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.