Manchester United remains top of the Premier League after beating in-form Sunderland at Old Trafford. Dimitar Berbatov’s double in a bright performance leaves United six points clear of Chelsea, with the Londoners in action against local rivals Arsenal tomorrow. Only woodwork kept the score down as United began the Christmas programme in style.
Berbatov headed United in front within five minutes and scored a deflected second on the hour as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side wrapped up a routine win. It gives the Scot’s side considerable momentum ahead of matches against Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion before the turn of the year.
United, still unbeaten and with two games in hand over City, head into the new year in ominous form, despite rarely hitting the heights this season. Still, Ferguson was naturally delighted with United’s performance against the Mackems.
“We are hitting good form, the football was fantastic. We could have scored five by half-time,” said Ferguson, with United two points clear of Manchester City.
“Some of the interchanges and the combination play was very, very good.
“We were more economical in the second half. We want to be ready for Birmingham because they did not play on Sunday and will be fresh.”
Ferguson left Darren Fletcher and Nani out of the squad with minor injuries, although both should be available for the trip to the Midlands on Tuesday. But with Berbatov and Ryan Giggs restored to the side following United’s win over Arsenal a fortnight ago Ferguson’s outfit was in full flow during an entertaining first half.
Indeed, Giggs was central to the opening goal, with the Welshman creating space for Wayne Rooney and Berbatov heading home his 14th goal of the season from the Scouser’s cross. The Reds could have scored more before the half-time break, after Rooney’s delightful chip missed Craig Gordon’s post and Anderson slammed a shot against the Scot’s bar.
Giggs and Anderson – twice – could have increased the home side’s lead as United threatened to run up a cricket score. Sunderland hung on but in truth this was as one sided as it gets.
For all United’s dominance Steve Bruce’s outfit remained in the match though and Asamoah Gyan could have brought an equaliser when he fired wide from an angle.
It proved a false dawn, with Anderson superbly combining with Berbatov on the hour for United’s second, albeit via a fortunate deflection off Anton Ferdinand. The Bulgarian then almost added a third – which would have been a second personal hat-trick of the season – as United noticably eased down in the final 30.
Ferguson hauled off his leading scorer though, with three matches inside the next week and the Bulgarian’s job truly done. Indeed, the Scot saved special praise for the £30 million former Tottenham Hotspur star.
“He knows there are times we like to play with one up front and he understands that we have to sometimes change things around. But his form has been terrific,” the boss said.
“He has now scored 14 goals, which is a good return – if we get two players to score 25 goals between them then we have a great chance.”
If Berbatov scored United’s goals then Anderson was argubaly the star – for an hour or so - with the Brazilian finally flourishing after three largely frustrating seasons in Manchester. The 22-year-old midfielder offered energy and invetion as United missed out on an overwhelming victory at Old Trafford.
“Particularly Anderson today played very very well,” said assistant manager Mike Phelan.
“He has risen to the challenge, shown a lot of good forward play. I thought he made some excellent through-ball passes and possibly could have scored.”
It’s the one area of Anderson’s game that is yet to improve as the former Porto star continues an unlikely renaissaince. Little more than a year ago and the 22-year-old seemed certain to leave. More performances like this and the Brazilian international could even become central to United’s ambitions at home and abroad this season; perhaps even repaying some of the £17 million fee it took to bring the youngster to Manchester.
Yet it was another day on which Rooney failed to score. The Scouser has hit the net just twice this season from 12 appearances, both from penalties. Despite another decent performance United cannot but be worried that the £30 million forward continues to labour.
Not that former United defender Bruce had any doubts about the day’s deserved winners.
“I have heard it said that United are not playing that well,” said the Mackem’s manager.
“Well, they are unbeaten for six months, so that is not a bad statistic is it? They are top of the league, with games in hand, and history suggests they always get better in the second half of the season. I wouldn’t bet against them, that’s for sure.”
United – 451 – Van der Sar; Rafael Da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Park, Anderson (Gibson 63), Carrick, Giggs (Hernandez 63); Berbatov (Macheda 63), Rooney.
Sunderland – 433 – Gordon; Bardsley, Onuoha, Ferdinand, Zenden (Angeleri 88); Malbranque (Cook 82), Henderson, Riveros, Elmohamady; Bent (Meyler 69), Gyan.
Attendance – 75,269
Man of the Match – Anderson
Possession: United 50% – 50% Sunderland
Attempts: 15 – 6
On Target: 10 – 2
Corners: 5 – 9
Fouls: 3 – 10