Michael Owen, Anderson and Nemanja Vidic return to the Manchester United squad as the Reds welcome Sunderland to Old Trafford. Without a game in two weeks, United face not only the in-form Black Cats but potential ring-rustiness too. But manager Sir Alex Ferguson is boosted by additions ahead of the festive period.
Anderson and Vidic would both have missed United’s visit to Chelsea last weekend bar for the fixture being called off more than 27 hours ahead of the Sunday afternoon fixture. If the postponement suited the home side, then Ferguson will no doubt be grateful that the flu virus that has swept the United camp for the second time this season has now dissipated.
Meanwhile striker Owen says that he is available for all United’s festive fixtures, which include visits to Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion.
But whatever the personnel United faces no easy task against Steve Bruce’s rejuvenated Sunderland outfit. After all, a stunning 3-0 victory at Stamford Bridge came barely a month ago.
“In all the time I have been at Manchester United, I could probably point to six perfect performances. Steve will look at that in the same way. It was one of the stand-out performances of the season,” said Ferguson.
“They were absolutely brilliant and could have won by six or seven. It is a reminder that we are dealing with a team that has that kind of ability and drive at the moment. We are in for a particularly hard game.”
Danny Welbeck, who scored at Stamford Bridge, is ineligible for the Old Trafford match under FA rules. It’s a blow to Bruce who has seen a front three of the 20-year-old on-loan striker, Darren Bent and £13 million signing Asamoah Gyan score 20 times this season.
Indeed, Welbeck has performed superbly for the Black Cats, overcoming an abortive loan spell at Preston North End last year. Talented but showing few signs that he could grow into a role at United, the Longsight-born striker may yet have played his way into Ferguson’s plans next season.
“In his spell around the first team in the last couple of years, Danny never played more than four games in a row. It was imperative that he went out on loan and played regular football,” said Ferguson.
“In the last couple of years he grew so big, so quickly, Danny was weak in some parts of his legs, which created a lot of problems for the boy.
“But you look at him now and see the growth. He has filled out and is very powerful. He is handling the physical part quite easily and has been one of Sunderland’s best players.”
Owen stood in the youngster’s way last season of course, although given that the former Liverpool player out of contract in June it is almost inconceivable that the 31-year-old will still be at Old Trafford should Welbeck return permanently. Meanwhile, Owen says he has been fit for three weeks after a hamstring injury sustained in October. The veteran is now behind Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Federico Macheda and Javier Hernandez in the United pecking order.
Ferguson will be without John O’Shea and Paul Scholes though, with both men suffering groin injuries in recent weeks. Scholes, who may yet be offered a one-year contract extension, hasn’t played in more than a month and is unlikely to feature in any of United’s festive programme.
Meanwhile, Sunderland manager Bruce has promised to attack United, despite a record that reads no win at Old Trafford since 1968 and a rash of injuries and suspension afflicting his squad. In addition to Welbeck, Bruce is missing key defenders Titus Bramble, Michael Turner, Anton Ferdinand and John Mensah, while Lee Cattermole is – almost inevitably – suspended. David Meyler and Frazier Campbell are also sidelined.
Bruce’s former manager Ferguson simply hopes United remains top by the time Liverpool visit for the FA Cup third round on 4 January 2011.
“My aim is to try and be top by January 4,” he said.
“By that time, the top of the league will have taken shape.
“Maybe, because of the weather, it is difficult to think everyone will have four games. But if we do, and we are top, we will have done well.”
If United manage it, history suggests the title is heading for Old Trafford.
Sunderland – 442 – Gordon; Bardsley, Elmohamady, Onouha, Richardson; Malbranque, Riveros, Henderson, Zenden; Bent, Gyan. Subs from: Mignolet, Angeleri, Da Silva, Carson, Noble, Adams.
United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Anderson, Fletcher, Park; Rooney, Berbatov. Subs from: Carrick, Kuzszazk, Amos, Fabio da Silva, Evans, Smalling, O’Shea, Brown, Gibson, Obertan, Bébé, Giggs, Hernández, Macheda, Owen.
Referee: Phil Dowd
Assistant referees: Stuart Burt & Adam Watts
Fourth official: Andy Woolmer
United – DWWLDW
Sunderland – WDLWDW