The standard of football in this Div. I clash was top drawer. However, the tackles that went in, as was the case with United’s 1-0 win over Arsenal, took away from the beauty of the game. It’s not to say that there is nothing like watching a good, hard-fought physical battle, but Millwall players were stretchered off the field. And that was well before the halftime whistle.
Now we know why mainland European players and managers complain about the physical side of the English game. Indeed, in the other semi, it seemed part of United’s game plan to tackle with vengeance. In this clash, Irish international Jason McAteer of Sunderland lashed out and was sent off. Paul Scholes continues to get away with some of the most outrageous tackles seen in the game. United can be said to have literally kicked Arsenal out of the Cup. However, the somewhat dirty tackling in the Sunderland-Millwall battle in the end played second fiddle in an excellent match.
The game opened up with an electrifying atmosphere on the field and in the stands. In the seventh minute, Sunderland’s John Oster hit a superb free kick from outside the box. Millwall’s keeper, Andy Marshall, well beaten, was saved by the woodwork. It was a sign of things not to come for Sunderland. When it came it came to putting the ball in the back of the net, luck was not on their side, it seemed. Marshall was also on hand to make some great saves throughout the game to deny Sunderland.
In the early stages Sunderland were dangerous. McCarthy’s Black Cats, though, could not take advantage of the early dominance. What a story the ex-Irish manager was putting together with his Div. I outfit. The Irish trio of Phil Babb, Gary Breen and McAteer looked comfortable in this opening spell.
The Black Cats were given a warning in the 12th minute. Millwall got the ball into Sunderland’s net against the run of play, but to Big Mick’s relief, it was ruled offside. Sunderland were putting some serious pressure on Millwall all over the field. However, the disallowed goal should have warned Sunderland that running a hectic pressure game is not always the way to go. As with his Irish teams, McCarthy’s Sunderland were exposing themselves to the counterattack.
Millwall began to get more constructive in their play as end-to-end football brought fans out of their seats. Irish veterans Babb and Breen showed their experience as Millwall player-coach Dennis Wise inspired his team to attack. McAteer latched onto a chance but over the bar it went. Sunderland were trying to keep possession in somewhat of a slow buildup to score a goal. Be reminded they were also trying to stop Millwall from playing out of the back. It was a lot to ask of the Sunderland players to maintain possession and close down so deep in the field. It seemed by the time a scoring chance popped up Sunderland’s striker didn’t measure up. The composure just wasn’t there.
The game was settling down after a frantic pace and Sunderland looked the better team. But Millwall was adapting and when they passed it was more decisive. Then, in the 24th minute, the Sunderland defense messed up. The Black Cats’ skipper, Northern Ireland international George McCartney, attempted to lay the ball off to Babb, but the pass fell short. In skipped Paul Ifill to shoot and for Australian Tim Cahill to latch onto the clearing save by Mart Poom. The Aussie took his finish superbly however it did get perhaps a favored deflection. The tide was turning against McCarthy and Sunderland. The goal had zapped the Black Cats who were in good stride. Now their marking was poor as Millwall controlled the tempo.
Then in 6 minutes of first half added time Sunderland was piling the pressure on but couldn’t score. It was Cup entertainment at its best. For McCarthy, this strong first-half finish was something to build on in his halftime talk. The Black Cats came out in the second half and it looked like only a matter of time before they’d score and go on to win. Big Kevin Kyle was breaking Millwall down and testing Marshall. Sunderland were on top in play as well. Then Mick McCarthy took Kyle off. The Scottish international was furious; he couldn’t believe it.
McCarthy will examine his substitution. He has to, though he’s defended his decision. But he must know now that he should have kept Kyle on. He was voted manager of the month in March. He continues to guide his side towards Premiership football, and if he gets them back all is forgiven. But as far as his substitution decision, that cannot go amiss.
By the end of the game he was prepared to go 3-5-2 when he took Babb out and brought on Matt Piper the midfielder, and that proved effective, but not enough to score. With Kyle getting involved so much he should have been left on. It would have been better to have Kyle and Marcus Stewart on at the same time. After all, a goal is what Sunderland needed. Their spirit and fantastic team effort would have allowed them to play a 3-4-3. There is a question mark over McCarthy’s changes at Old Trafford, despite the fantastic season he already has under his belt.