More than 10 months on from the scene of Manchester United’s most traumatic title defeat in recent memory, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side returns to the Stadium of Light on Saturday lunchtime. United beat Sunderland last May. but few remember the game or result amid Manchester City’s celebrations that followed.
While the Blue quarter of Manchester commenced the party, a small corner of the north east joined in, Sunderland fans ‘doing the Poznan’ in a moment of joyous schadenfreude. It is an image imprinted in the collective consciousness of those who attended United’s 1-0 victory.
In the intervening months Ferguson’s side has taken title disappointment and channelled the pain into a what now looks to be a successful Premier League challenge. United’s 15-point lead could stretch further after the weekend’s games.
However, revenge, says the Scot, is not on the agenda; not with a title to claim and another game to check off the list. Just eight league games remain after United’s trip north.
Yet, few on the terraces this Saturday will forget the last visit here, even if United walk away from the Stadium of Light 18 points clear.
“You see a lot of that with supporters’ reaction to many things,” said Ferguson of Sunderland’s conflicted supporters.
“It was disappointing and it’s hard to take these things with the way it all panned out. I thought we’d won it for 20 seconds and it was snatched away from us.
“There’s not any bitterness from my point of view. It happens and we move on. We’ve dusted ourselves down and made a really good challenge in the league this year. The concentration has been fantastic and the team spirit is really good. So, in that respect, we’ve answered it as best we can.
“So I don’t have any issues with the Sunderland fans. I don’t think the Sunderland fans wanted City to win it any more than we did. It was just a fact that they were our opponents that day and it goes back to what I was saying about present society.”
Ferguson’s side travels north facing two games in 48 hours, with an FA Cup replay against Chelsea in London on Monday likely to play some part in the Scot’s weekend team selection. Indeed, with half-a-dozen players returning from draining double-header internationals last week, Ferguson is likely to use his full squad over the next two matches.
Fortunate, then, that not only did five key players miss out on international week altogether, but a further group of players are set to return from injury over the next two matches. Heading into the 45th fixture of another busy season – with no more than 12 matches to go – Ferguson is certain to spread the load liberally in the coming weeks.
“The players who will miss the international trips like Giggs, Anderson, Vidić, Büttner and Rafa will be key players on the run-in,” said Ferguson.
“I don’t think there are any injuries from the internationals which is really good news. There’s a fair bit of tiredness and the answer to that is to make sure we get the energies back in their bodies. So there’s the recovery side to it with not much training.
“There was a fair bit of travel – Chicharito and Valencia only got in yesterday afternoon and the English players got back at 5am. Other than that, we’re very satisfied.”
“Nani, Jones and Scholes are all doing a little bit of training, which is encouraging. Hopefully it will give us a good strong squad to approach the two games on Saturday and Monday. We’ll try and keep the momentum going with he run we’re in at the moment. If we do that, Monday will take care of itself.”
Indeed, the United manager is likely to go with the freshest possible options for Saturday’s fixture, with Anderson, Ryan Giggs and Alexander Büttner certain to start. In midfield Nani could return, although Paul Scholes may make only the bench.
It is in the forward areas that Ferguson has the toughest selection choices, with Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernández and Shinji Kagawa each playing twice last week. The latter pair travelled to South American and Asia respectively.
Meanwhile, Sunderland arrive in desperate trouble at the foot of the Premier League. Martin O’Neil’s men have picked up just two points in the past six games, leaving the Mackems just four points of the relegation places. Worse, momentum appears to be with Sunderland’s rivals – Queens Park Rangers, Aston Villa, Wigan Athletic and even Reading have picked up more points over the same period.
It leaves the Irishman under severe pressure, fighting not only for Sunderland’s survival the season before the Premier League’s huge new television deal kicks in, but his own reputation. After successful spells in charge of Leicester City, Celtic and Villa, O’Neil now stands on the precipice of relegation.
With matches against Chelsea, Everton and Newcastle following United’s visit, O’Neil has very little time in which to turn Sunderland’s season around.
O’Neil’s man play out the season without key striker Steven Fletcher too, with the striker suffering ankle ligament damage on international duty with Scotland. Defender Carlos Cuellar is also injured, although Stephane Sessegnon could return to a squad desperately short on quality. Lee Cattermole and former Red Wes Brown also miss out.
“The old cliché about people stepping up to the plate has never been more relevant,” said O’Neill, who walked out on Villa in summer 2010 in a dispute over transfer funds.
“Remaining upbeat is actually in my nature. I can be down when we’ve lost matches but fighting back is part of me. Being down is not in my nature. Setbacks are part of the game. You have to expect these things. We have some great games ahead that we can look forward to rather than shy away from. They are tough but exciting to be involved in.”
Yet, Sunderland’s supporters appear to be losing faith; leading fanzine Roker Report recently describing a team “headed for the iceberg” and in O’Neill a manager that “is too proud to let go of the helm.”
Cliché, of course, but this is a ship sinking fast, with the rats abandoning astern. Few Old Trafford regulars will hold any sympathy of course. Not after that Pozan on that day.
“The fans have come in big numbers to support us,” claimed O’Neil.
“We have not given them a great deal to support all season. They are entitled to be frustrated. Personally speaking, I believe this is years of pent-up frustration that Sunderland have not won a trophy for 40 years.”
Not unless the Stadium of Light faithful are claiming that City victory last May, of course.
Sunderland v Manchester United – Premier League, Stadium of Light – 30 March 2013, 12.45pm
Sunderland (4-4-2): Mignolet; Bardlsey, O’Shea, Bramble, Rose; Johnson, N’Diaye, Colback, McClean; Sessegnon, Graham. Subs from: Westwood, Larsson, Kilgallon, Vaughan,Mangane, Gardner, Mandron, Noble, Wickham
United (4-4-2): de Gea; Rafael, Vidić, Evans, Büttner; Nani, Scholes, Anderson, Giggs; Welbeck, van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Ferdinand, Evra, Powell, Cleverley, Carrick, Young, Hernández, Valencia, Kagawa, Rooney.
Referee: Kevin Friend
Assistant Referees: J Flynn, D England
Fourth Official: L Mason
Head to Head
Last 10: Sunderland 0, United 8, Draw 2
Overall: Sunderland 39, United 59, Draw 36