Manchester United's desperate season met with fresh degradation on Wednesday as they sensationally lost on penalties to Sunderland in the League Cup semi-finals at Old Trafford.
Trailing 2-1 from the first leg, United levelled the tie through Jonny Evans's 37th-minute header, only for Phil Bardsley to net a dramatic equaliser late in extra time with a low shot that squirmed past David de Gea.
Improbably, United promptly went straight up to the other end and equalised through Javier Hernandez, for a 3-3 aggregate scoreline that sent the tie to penalties, but it was to prove a false dawn.
An appalling shoot-out saw only three of the 10 penalty-takers score, but United full-back Rafael da Silva proved the fall guy, with Vito Mannone saving his spot-kick to give Sunderland a 2-1 win.
Having already seen his side beaten by Swansea City in the FA Cup and relegated to 14 points below leaders Arsenal in the league this month, it was another night of misery for United's beleaguered manager David Moyes.
"We did not play well enough," Moyes said.
"We had the chances to put it to bed, but didn't. Sunderland played well and they deserve credit, but overall we looked like we would get there until the last minute.
"I was disappointed, but we did not play well enough in the end. That's football. We'll get on with it, pick ourselves up, and go again."
Sunderland, second from bottom in the Premier League, can now look forward to a clash with Manchester City in the final on March 2, in what will be their first major final since 1992.
"The feelings are for the fans," said manager Gus Poyet.
"It's been a difficult season, nothing to enjoy, but they deserve this. The lads were immense. In the cups you never know what will happen. I will enjoy being underdogs (at Wembley)."
United's fans arrived at Old Trafford to reports that their side have made a club-record bid for Chelsea midfielder Juan Mata, and the continued absence of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie due to injury underlined the need for reinforcements.
There was an early chance for Hernandez, whose downward header from Adnan Januzaj's free-kick was parried by visiting goalkeeper Mannone, but the hosts initially struggled to make inroads.
Nine thousand Sunderland fans travelled from the northeast and the hordes of away supporters almost had a memorable goal to cheer when Fabio Borini chested down a raking pass from Adam Johnson and drilled a half-volley inches over the bar from 25 yards.
Moyes reacted by bringing Shinji Kagawa into the centre and moments later the Japan midfielder created the chance that led to the opening goal.
His cross was volleyed against the post by Darren Fletcher, with Mannone blocking Hernandez's follow-up, and from the ensuing corner Januzaj's cross was flicked goalwards by Danny Welbeck and headed in by Evans.
As Sunderland grew bolder in the second half, Moyes introduced Antonio Valencia in place of Kagawa and the Ecuadorian quickly created a chance for Januzaj, only for the teenager to slice wide.
It was Sunderland who continued to force the issue, though. Only a flying block from Alexander Buttner thwarted Johnson, while Marcos Alonso almost found the net with an audacious volley that zipped just past the post.
Chris Smalling, meanwhile, was fortunate to avoid punishment when he dragged Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher down after misjudging a bouncing ball.
United sustained a blow early in extra time when Michael Carrick had to go off after twisting his ankle, and they wasted a chance to increase their lead when Hernandez shot wide after Januzaj put him clean through.
The game appeared up for Moyes's men when goalkeeper De Gea somehow allowed a low daisy-cutter from former United player Bardsley to squirm through his grasp and into the net in the 119th minute.
United were stunned, and although Januzaj then crossed for Hernandez to slam home an even more dramatic goal, the night would belong to Sunderland.