In a week where all the talk around Manchester United has been firmly centred off the pitch it may have escaped many observers that the Reds travel to Sunderland on Saturday searching for the three most important points of the season. Rumours that José Mourinho is coming dominated the headlines early in the week, with many pundits claiming a deal has been completed for the former Chelsea boss to succeed Louis van Gaal in the summer. Then, on Thursday, executive vice chairman Ed Woodward briefed investors that the club is confident of breaking half a billion in revenue by the end of the year. Supporters might be forgiven for thinking everything is going well at Old Trafford. Read More
Defeat at the Liberty Stadium last weekend was just Manchester United’s second in 20 league and cup matches; a data point to prove that glib stats offer very little insight. It was, after all, also the second reverse that Louis van Gaal’s side had suffered in six games, during a period in which the Reds style has been roundly criticised. For a man that arrived at Old Trafford with a genuine sense of aura, Van Gaal is now very much under pressure.
Pressure is building because United’s path to Champions League football next season is far from clear. United remains in a five-way fight for just two spots at Europe’s top-table, with Arsenal and Liverpool in, arguably, better form than the Dutchman’s side. Southampton’s resilience and Tottenham Hotspur’s progression under Mauricio Pochettino look likely to remain a factor with just 12 games to go.
By contrast Van Gaal’s side has seemingly made little progress this season – even when a rash of early-campaign injuries cleared up after the Christmas period. In recent matches United has been reduced to a desperate long ball game, aimed at using Marouane Fellaini’s physical prowess. It is an agricultural approach not seen at Old Trafford since Dave Sexton’s disastrous reign in the 1970s.
Timely, perhaps, that Sunderland arrives in the midst of a run of form that includes just one victory from nine league games. Gus Poyet’s side is three points above the relegation zone. United, meanwhile, remains in a dog-fight for European qualification. The club’s – and perhaps even Van Gaal’s – future will be significantly damaged should Sunderland repeat last season’s 1-0 victory at Old Trafford on Saturday.
Van Gaal will be without Robin van Persie for the Mackems‘ visit. The the much-maligned Dutchman out for around a month with an ankle injury suffered against Swansea City last weekend. However, midfielder Michael Carrick is back in training after a calf problem. The Englishman’s lack of match fitness means a place on the bench is most likely, with Wayne Rooney again deployed in midfield.
In Van Persie’s absence Radamel Falcao could earn a recall, with pacy youngster James Wilson also available, not that United’s coach believes the new partnership will bare immediate fruit.
“It is a process between players. When Falcao is used to playing with van Persie then, when he plays with Wilson, he starts another process. That’s why I started with Falcao and van Persie,” said the veteran coach on Friday.
“Now maybe is the time to start a process between Falcao and Wilson. They haven’t played so much together, I believe once or twice. You can see that Wilson is also left-footed like van Persie and Falcao is right-footed. I have used Rooney as the right-footed striker and Wilson as a left-footed striker, that is why I kept these four players at the start of the season.”
Meanwhile, Poyet is without Emanuele Giaccherini, who underwent ankle surgery this week. The Italian winger is unlikely to play again this season, while Billy Jones and Jack Rodwell remain on the sidelines. New signing Jermain Defoe is fit to continue his partnership with Conor Wickham up front in a 4-4-2 system that Poyet has adopted in recent matches.
Despite Sunderland’s poor form this season Poyet remains upbeat – not least because of the Mackems’ victory at Old Trafford last year.
“Manchester United have to come back and they know us well from what happened last year, so they know they will face a team who could find Old Trafford a nice place to play football,” said the Sunderland manager.
“It is going to be competitive and we need to be spot on defensively because they have quality players. If everyone is fit they have an incredible team.”
Van Gaal, meanwhile, must turn that “incredible team” into points ahead of a daunting March and April fixture schedule. United must play Arsenal, twice, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Chelsea before the campaign ends. It leaves the Dutchman with little margin for error, especially against teams in Sunderland’s lowly position.
Yet, the Reds can also boast the second best home record in the Premier League, including a record of 10 victories in the past 12 Premier League games at Old Trafford. Continuation depends in no small part on United finding a route to goal – one that has proven difficult for United’s strikers this season.
“It is true because I cannot deny it,” said Van Gaal of his forwards profligacy this season. “Robin van Persie cannot deny it, Falcao cannot deny it and Rooney is not playing there much any more. We cannot deny that, at this moment, we don’t have a striker who scores 20 goals in the season.”
Just one will probably do on Saturday.
United (4-1-3-2): De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Blind; Fellaini, Rooney, Di Maria; Wilson, Falcao
Sunderland (4-4-2): Pantilimon; Vergini, O’Shea, Brown, Reveillere; Alvarez, Cattermole, Larsson, Johnson; Wickham, Defoe
United: Valdes, Evans, Rafael, McNair, James, Smalling, Blackett, Januzaj, Young, Herrera, Pereira
Sunderland: Mannone, Coates, Van Aanholt, Bridcutt, Buckley, Gomez, Fletcher, Graham
United 62 – Draw 37 – Sunderland 41
Referee: Roger East
Assistants: G Beswick, R West
Fourth Official: M Atkinson
United 3-1 Sunderland
£1 bet club
James Wilson to score twice @ 6/1
Running total: £1.50 up!
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Losing at home was a David Moyes thing – all seven of them in the Premier League last season. Ground zero of Manchester United’s worst campaign in more than 25 years. Louis van Gaal’s appointment was, by contrast, the start of a bright new dawn: sophisticated tactics, positive attacking football and, above all, a clean slate. That pretense was blown away in 90 short minutes last weekend.
Success will surely come, but United’s defeat to Swansea City at Old Trafford laid bare just how far this United side has fallen. Premier League title winners little more than 15 months ago, United now faces the very real prospect of two seasons out of the Champions League. After all, Swansea’s victory did little more than expose just how fragile Van Gaal’s squad remains; short in defence, midfield and wide areas.
Confidence shattered, after what now seems a superficial period of redemption in the United States, the Reds travel to Sunderland more in hope than genuine belief. The Mackems have effectively beaten United three times on the spin – in the Capital One Cup semi-final over two legs and at Old Trafford in the Premier League in the Spring. There will be few on Wearside ready to let Van Gaal’s side have an easy ride on Sunday afternoon.
The remedy is both simple and complex. The charade that the club can buck the market trend and obtain English and European preeminence on will power and bargain signings alone has gone. In its place a new reality – that with no structural advantages, or Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm, United will compete in an open market against a slew of clubs willing to outspend the Glazer family.
Around £140 million has been spent in the past 12 months. It probably isn’t enough. Profits or points? Tampa Bay will decide. In the meantime Van Gaal is entrenched in the belief that his “philosophy” will bring success to United, with a recognition that there are few short-term fixes.
“Two weeks ago, I was the king of Manchester and now I am the devil,” the Dutchman said on Friday.
“It’s the football world and it is especially the media in this football world. I think the fans of Manchester United are intelligent. I’ve already said in all the press conferences in the USA that it shall be difficult in the first three months for the players especially, but also for the fans.
“I said to Ed Woodward and the Glazer family that it’s always like that and they have hired me because of my philosophy. I am not hired to be fired, but to build up a team and that is a process which needs time.”
It is, says Van Gaal, this philosophy that will take United on a journey back to the top. One where the Dutchman will only acquire players adhering to this vision – if Ed Woodward can deliver on the bold claims of early summer.
“I have brought another philosophy to the club and that is difficult,” adds Van Gaal.
“I have to give a lot of information and now we are in the process of a lot of information. For example, I have to drive at this moment on the left side and then I have to pay a lot of attention to drive properly. It costs me a lot of energy.
“I can imagine the fans are scared. They have seen already the last year and now seen also the first home match and then I can imagine that. But they have to believe in the philosophy we bring in to this club and the players believe that. They have shown already in the United States, now they have to show it here. That needs time.”
For the time being Van Gaal is set to take United into the season with Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw and Marcus Rojo as the clubs’ only summer recruits. Hardly the significant rebuilding promised. The irony of the trio being unavailable through injury for United’s trip to the North East will not be lost on the veteran Dutchman.
Shaw is unavailable due to injury, while Johnny Evans, Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck could also miss out, having missed last weekend’s fixture against The Swans. Herrera has an ankle problem and will miss at least a week, although Robin van Persie is available for selection. The Spaniard will have a scan on the injury this week, along with Marouane Fellaini who also has an ankle problem.
Jesse Lingard is out meaning Adnan Januzaj may have to fill in as an emergency right wing back unless Van Gaal risks Rafael da Silva.
Rojo is yet to receive a work permit despite completing his move from Sporting Lisbon on Thursday and does not travel. This is another change from the era of old – United used to apply for a work permit before completing an acquisition.
Meanwhile, Sunderland manager Gus Poyet could hand a home début to three transfer window signings: Jack Rodwell, Jordi Gomez and Patrick van Aanholt. Defenders Billy Jones and Santiago Vergini are available, however Emanuele Giaccherini misses the game with a groin injury.
“Playing Manchester United – one of the top teams in England and the world – makes it even more special, so we are really focused on being ready to play the game,” said Poyet.
“To win or to have a chance of winning against the top teams once you may be lucky, but to do it regularly you have to be playing at your best, take your chances and defend well. You have to have as close as possible to a perfect game.”
Generous words given United’s performance against Swansea last Saturday.
Still, history is at least on United’s side: the Reds are unbeaten in 12 league games at Sunderland since a 2-1 defeat in March 1997. This is no time for Van Gaal to start a Moyes-esque trend for breaking records.
But will victory at the Stadium of Light will contribute to a title victory come May? Van Gaal, like many supporters, has little belief.
“It’s a process and that process needs time. It’s not an overnight job. It is not a question of being champions at the end of the season because we have to build a team and that process takes maybe longer.”
Sunderland (4-4-2): Mannone; Roberge, O’Shea, Brown, Van Aanholt; Johnson, Rodwell, Cattermole, Larsson; Fletcher, Wickham
United (3-4-1-2): de Gea; Smalling, Jones, Blackett; Januzaj, Cleverley, Fletcher, Young; Mata; Rooney, Van Persie.
Sunderland: Pantilimon, Jones, Vergini, Bridcutt, Buckley, Gómez, Altidore, Mavrias, Graham, Mandron, Smith, Watmore, Agnew
United: Amos, Da Silva, Keane, James, Zaha, Powell, Anderson, Kagawa, Hernández, Wilson.
Sunderland 41- Draw 36 – United 62
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: S Child, H Lennard
Fourth Official: P Dowd
Sunderland 1 – 2 United
£1 bet club
Robin van Persie & 1-2 @ 18/1
Running total: £(-)1
Theres nothing quite like a 100 per cent record to lift the spirits! The Ryan Giggs roadshow rolls on after victory over Norwich City last weekend, with three games in seven days before the Welshman ends his brief stint as Manchester United’s interim manager. Whatever the 40-year-old’s future with the club – and a long-term role is still to be determined – it has been a period of much relief after 10 months in which David Moyes brought the club to its lowest point in 25 years. Not so under Giggs, with the interim manager rapidly heralding a period of new positivity at Old Trafford.
Giggs’ transformational work has been swift if much to do with a weight lifed from a squad that had been operating under a David Moyes-inspired cloud for much of the season. With lowly Sunderland at Old Trafford on Saturday, followed by Hull City on Tuesday, Giggs has a genuine opportunity to add to the rapidly growing momentum for his permanent installation as manager. United close the season at Southampton next weekend.
It remains unlikely that Giggs will be offered the manager’s job, with United still negotiating the Welshman’s role in Louis van Gaal’s prospective regime. Indeed, Giggs may be at the beginning of a fine coaching career with United after more than 23 years in the first team – or just three games from breaking lifelong ties to the club. Both options are seemingly open should the Welshman not receive a suitable offer from the club to continue in a playing or coaching capacity.
“Nothing has changed – it’s until the end of the season and we’ll chat when that’s over,” said Giggs on Friday. “My main concentration is on Sunderland tomorrow and the remaining two games.”
“I have got to decide if I want to play or not so there is no point thinking if I want to be an assistant or if I want to be a manager somewhere else. There are so many things to think about. The way I am thinking is I am enjoying it and then my concentration is on the remaining two games and then we will see what happens.
“My concentration is just on now. I’m still training and doing bits and pieces so I’m still in the frame on maybe playing in the remaining games. I’m just trying to keep myself fit and try to win every game. I might not get back into the team!”
Whatever Giggs’ future role the short-term focus remains on the pitch with United seeking a positive end to a dismissal season. The Reds face a stern test on Saturday whenever the renewed confidence in Giggs’ camp. After all, Sunderland remains desperate for points with Gus Poyet’s side escaping the bottom three only on goal difference after two victories in succession. Fixtures against Swansea City and West Bromwich Albion close out the Mackems’ season in what could yet be an escape from the drop that few predicted at the turn of the year.
Meanwhile, United may be without Wayne Rooney, who is suffering from a minor groin problem and a bug that has swept through the United camp. However, Robin van Persie has trained all week and should make the match day squad. In Rooney’s absence the Dutchman may yet start in what could become a two-way fight for one place in van Gaal’s side next season.
“A few of the lads have had a bug,” said Giggs. “Wayne has and Anders [Lindegaard] has too. Wayne also has a tight groin. You have to be careful with the bug because the immune system is down a bit but Wayne, being Wayne, wants to play. We’ll monitor it over the next 24 hours. Robin has been back training this week and has looked good. Whether tomorrow is too early, we’ll just have to see how he goes today. He has looked really good this week.”
The visitors arrive in solid form having secured a draw against Manchester City at the Etihad, followed by victories over Chelsea and Cardiff City. The haul of seven points from nine has taken the Mackems from bottom place to a position of safety with a game in hand over the club’s principal rivals for the drop.
On the pitch manager Poyet has Phil Bardsley available again after the defender completed a two-match suspension. The former Red will compete with January signing Santiago Vergini for a place in the Sunderland side at Old Trafford.
Meanwhile, Connor Wickham has finally hit a patch of form after three difficult seasons with the club. The £8 million striker has scored five goals in three games, while on-loan forward Fabio Borini has enjoyed a positive season on Wearside in a strike force that could cause United’s old guard plenty of trouble on the break.
At the back former Reds John O’Shea and Wes Brown will again start in central defence. Neither has enjoyed an injury-free campaign, nor in truth a successful one, but will surely relish one more visit to the old stomping ground – and a meeting with former team-mate Giggs.
“I have always thought that Ryan would eventually manage a team,” said Brown, who spent 14 seasons at United.
“It is under bad circumstances in the way that he has gone in, I am sure he is thriving on it and looking forward to the next few games ahead. Everything at the moment is going to be in their favour. They have got a new lease of life, they will definitely be up for the game and the crowd will as well. They are looking to next season now and we have got to drain that out of them by doing what we have done it the last couple of weeks.”
Indeed, the positivity surrounding the Giggs bandwagon will come under pressure from a Sunderland outfit that has scored eight in three games. That is to say little of the Carling Cup victory secured over United in January – just one of many low points this season.
Still, if Giggs is to secure a permanent role in van Gaal’s camp – a manager the Welshman described as having a “fantastic pedigree” on Friday – nine points from the next three will do little harm, even if the Welshman claims to be focused on the here and now. With just maybe just a touch on the future too.
“My concentration is just on managing United now. The only peace and quiet you do get is when you are on the training pitch. As soon as you’re back in the office, you have meetings, you have calls. For example this week has been planning pre-season.”
Manchester United v Sunderland, Premier League, Old Trafford, 3pm, 3 May 2014
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Vidić, Evra; Januzaj, Fletcher, Carrick, Kagawa; Mata; Welbeck
Sunderland (4-5-1): Mannone; Vergini, Brown, O’Shea, Alonso; Johnson, Larsson, Cattermole, Colback, Borini; Wickham
United: Lindegaard, Büttner, Evans, Smalling, Cleverley, Fellaini, Valencia, Nani, Young, Hernández, van Persie
Sunderland: Ustari, Bardsley, Celustka, Dossena, Roberge, Ba, Bridcutt, Cabral, Gardner, Giaccherini, Mavrias, Altidore, Moberg-Karlsson, Scocco.
Head to Head
United 62 Draw 36 Sunderland 40
Referee: Howard Webb
Assistants: D Cann, S Massey
Fourth Official: A Marriner
Join the discussion here!
It is not as if David Moyes lacks for practice this season, but the Scot does an increasingly impressive line in dead pan comedy. At least that is one interpretation of the Moyes’ reaction to United’s latest – the ninth – defeat of a frankly disastrous season. “We were unlucky,” said Moyes in the aftermath. “I thought we played quite well at times.” It was a line that the Scot took into the dressing room according to at least one post-match report; analysis that is unlikely to have impressed seasoned campaigners who know far better. The Reds were neither unlucky, nor did they play well in the capital.
The latest knock to United’s hopes, and Moyes’ credibility, was comprehensive defeat at Stamford Bridge, no matter how generous the analysis of United’s fleeting toehold in the game. The Reds’ positive start in west London would yield few chances, let alone goals; and with United’s defence erring on the side of embarrassing calamity at the other end there was little surprise at the ease of Chelsea’s eventual victory. That José Mourinho’s side barely broke sweat must be a concern not only in United’s dressing room, but the boardroom. For while Moyes’ players are not performing, they are not performing for him.
Indeed, prior to United’s Capital One Cup first leg encounter with Sunderland a fortnight ago veteran Scot Darren Fletcher had proclaimed there “no point” in turning up if Moyes’ players could not motivate themselves for the game. It turned out to be a prescient comment, with United largely run ragged by one of the Premier League’s worst sides.
So to Wednesday at Old Trafford, with Moyes afforded the opportunity for at least a modicum of satisfaction this month. Should United beat Sunderland, to join Manchester City in the Capital One Cup final at Wembley in March, Moyes will be within reach of his first trophy as a manager. Few may back United to beat City, but a final, is a final, after all.
Yet, the desire to beat Sunderland must be qualified and with it comes a measure of United’s fall from grace this season. That the Premier League champions should start a cup semi-final encounter against perennial relegation fodder genuinely unsure of the result is a sign of changing times indeed.
Victory by a single goal should be enough for Moyes’ outfit, but four Premier League defeats on home turf this season point to a potentially difficult night ahead all the same. In fact Moyes’ side has lost four of the past seven home matches, while Gus Poyet’s outfit has lost just one in 10.
Still, there is a cup final at stake. Another trip to Wembley, another opportunity to deny City further trophies in that once traditionally barren cupboard. Confidence may be lacking, both on the pitch and the terraces, but there is an opportunity to put one over the old enemy nonetheless. One for the fans, as Moyes might put it.
“We’re going to go out and do everything we can to get through,” the manager told MUTV in the aftermath of defeat at Stamford Bridge. “I want to give the supporters something to cheer about. There’s not been an awful lot and I’m fully aware of that.”
If victory is to come ‘for the fans’ then it will do so without either Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie. One, or perhaps both of the strike pair, could make United’s Premier League encounter with Cardiff City at Old Trafford next Tuesday, but neither is ready for Sunderland. Indeed, Moyes will be short in multiple areas, with Nemanja Vidić starting the first of a three match suspension following his dismissal at Stamford Bridge. Nani is definitely out, while Marouanne Fellaini is not yet ready for competitive football, and Patrice Evra picked up a knock at Stamford Bridge.
Still, there should be no doubt in the dressing room of the fixture’s importance, with the Premier League title now way beyond United’s reach and few bold enough to predict victory in Europe this season. With Moyes credibility in question, silverware is the Scot’s only legitimate response to critics keen to point the finger at the manager’s failings.
“It was always massively important to us – we want to win every competition. Now we have to go out and produce the goods. We have to get to that final,” said youngster Phil Jones, who partnered Michael Carrick in midfield at Chelsea
“The fans have been terrific and they were great again on Sunday. They’ve not had the easiest of times this season but they’ve stuck by us and that’s important. We all need to stick together – fans, players, staff – and we’ll come out stronger for that.”
It is a positive spin on a tough season, although there are few guarantees that United will improve as the campaign draws on. There has been little sign of it to date.
Meanwhile, the visitors have received a boost from Poyet’s appointment. The trauma of Paolo di Canio’s short reign now forgotten, Sunderland can legitimately hope for Premier League survival this season having briefly moved outside the bottom three at the weekend. There were more than a few occasions through the autumn that relegation looked certain.
And the more positive outlook received a double boost this week, with Sunderland bringing in defender Santiago Vergini and goalkeeper Oscar Ustari on loan. Neither is likely to start at Old Trafford, while striker Steven Fletcher is an injury concern. Goalkeeper Keiren Westwood and defender Carlos Cuellar remain on the sidelines.
“You don’t get to a semi-final every year – sometimes not even in 10 years,” said Poyet ahead of Wednesday’s game.
“It’s a great opportunity to put ourselves in a final but we’ve only done part of the job. We must go there and try to make sure we finish the job and put ourselves in the final. We’re going to play the game as normal. It’s a game we need to manage properly. We need a complete game – we must defend well, be strong and be good on the ball. We must attack to create chances and score goals. If we score then it will be more difficult for Manchester United.”
The Mackems have won just two of the past 25 meetings with United in all competitions, with both victories coming in the League Cup. Few will back the visitors to repeat the 2-1 win a fortnight ago. Yet, while that victory may have come with a touch of fortune, it was still hard earned. This is a lesson that United’s under-performing stars will do well to heed, lest their manager take more heat in a most difficult campaign.
Manchester United v Sunderland, Capital One Cup, 7.45pm, 22 January 2014
United (4-5-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Buttner; Valencia, Carrick, Fletcher, Young; Januzaj; Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Kagawa, Zaha, Giggs, Hernández, Cleverley, Fabio
Sunderland (4-5-1): Mannone; Bardsley, O’Shea, Brown, Alonso; Larsson, Colback, Cattermole, Ki, Johnson; Borini. Subs from: Gardner, Fletcher, Celustka, Pickford, Giaccherini, Roberge, Altidore, Vergini, Ustari
United 56 Draw 28 Sunderland 37
Referee: Lee Mason
Assistant Referees: Jake Collin and Simon Long
Fourth Official: Michael Dean
Rarely in recent times can a League Cup fixture have been so important. Seventh in the Premier League and dumped out of the FA Cup, the Capital One Cup now represents Manchester United’s best – perhaps only – realistic shot at silverware in a season that has lurched from one crisis-of-confidence to another. While it is easy for supporters to find themselves wrapped up in media hyperbole, there is little doubt fundamental changes for the negative have taken place at Old Trafford since David Moyes was appointed in July 2013. The question remains whether United reached a nadir in defeat to Swansea City at the weekend, or if the worst is still to come.
Certainly, while Moyes’ squad is low on confidence, the Scot should take heart from United’s form on the road as the Reds head to the north east for Tuesday’s cup match at Sunderland. Moyes’ side is unbeaten in the last seven games away from home, and have won the last three.
Indeed, United also emerged victorious from the Premier League clash at the Stadium of Light in October, with teenager Adnan Januzaj scoring twice on his full début to rescue three points for the Reds. Still, it was another uncertain performance from United, with Craig Gardner’s early goal handing struggling Sunderland a deserved half-time lead until Januzaj’s double.
That victory had come after defeats to Manchester City and West Bromwich Albion in late September, leaving United to muster similar resolve for Tuesday’s first leg. The team has been here far too many times this season.
Still, facing the worst team in the Premier League, midfielder Darren Fletcher says that the Reds have no excuses for underperformance on Wearside after a “bad result” that “let the manager and the fans down” on Sunday.
“It’s a League Cup semi-final, if you can’t lift yourself for that then it’s no good,” said the 29-year-old midfielder who only recently returned from more than a year on the sidelines with an acute bowel condition.
“We have got a great opportunity, we are away to Sunderland and we’ve got to recover quickly and lift ourselves. That’s a massive game now.”
“The players know that the fans are behind us and put performances in for the them, the manager and the staff. It’s got to happen sooner rather than later and there’s not better occasion than the semi-final on Tuesday.”
Moyes side heads into the game carrying injuries, although the Scot may well field a stronger team that the one which faced Swansea in Manchester. However, Rio Ferdinand is likely to miss the game after limping off against the Welsh side, while Phil Jones, Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney are all unlikely to return before the weekend’s Old Trafford rematch with the Swans.
It is a glut of absences that have patently disrupted United this season, although Moyes has failed to help his own cause by rushing both van Persie and Rooney back from injuries. On each occasion the player suffered fresh injury to stoke further controversy surrounding the Scot’s training methods.
Moyes blames a crowded fixture list for a physio room that now extends to eight players amid 63 separate injuries since the 50-year-old replaced Sir Alex Ferguson.
“Injuries are part of football and there’s very little we can do about most of them. I think they’re down to the large number of games we play as well,” said the United manager.
“Robin’s been out with a sore groin; he played really well against Arsenal and scored the winner. We gave him a week’s holiday to recover – he didn’t go away with Holland – he came back and hasn’t really been right since. He played one game against Newcastle and, the next game, he pulled his thigh taking a corner.
“Wayne’s struggling now. He’s had it for three or four weeks and played through. We left him out for a game or two to try to recover it, but he’s now beginning to feel it a bit more and we have to be careful not to turn it into something worse. A week off might be enough or he might need a bit more than that – I think it’s the sort of thing that a couple of weeks might fix.”
Injuries and rotation mean that Moyes will almost certainly freshen his side up for Tuesday’s match, with captain Nemanja Vidić, Michael Carrick, Patrice Evra, David de Gea, and Adnan Januzaj set to start in a match Moyes has prioritised. Indeed, the manager is unlikely to dip into United’s reserve side again this season, having only blooded Januzaj from last season’s Under-21 Premier League champions.
Meanwhile, Sunderland continue to struggle under manager Gus Poyet’s stewardship this season. The Mackems lie bottom of the Premier League table with just 14 points from 20 games and may need a further 26 from 16 to survive.
It leaves the Capital One Cup run as a welcome distraction, both for manager and players. And akin to many of United’s opponents this season Sunderland, Poyet’s side is set to attack the Reds, believing Moyes side to be vulnerable.
“We are going out to win it and depending on how you play on the day, the decisions you take, the accidents players make, the idea remains the same, to go into every game to win it,” said Poyet, who was controversially sacked as manager of Brighton in the summer.
“This is the nicest part of the season because the rest has been a nightmare in the league, so let’s try and enjoy it and achieve something. I am looking forward to seeing my team playing and doing their best.
“The closer we get to the match will mean the players will feel the atmosphere more and it will be great for them, but I will remind them that on the day anyone can beat anyone.”
However, with Sunderland short of cover in defence United might also be best served by a policy of attack. Valentin Roberge, John O’Shea, Carlos Cuellar and Modibo Diakite are out injured, with South Korea midfielder Ki Sung-yeung playing at centre-half in Sunday’s FA Cup victory against Carlisle.
Still, history is against the home side, with Sunderland having gone 20 games without a win against United stretching back to a League Cup victory in 2000. Mind you, Swansea had never previously won at Old Trafford, while Everton and Newcastle United have each broken decades-long losing streaks at United’s home this season. It is a series of shattered records in which Moyes can hold no pride.
Yet, United is yet to concede a goal in this season’s Capital One Cup, beating Liverpool, Norwich City and Stoke City along the way. It is a positive omen in a season of fewer ups than downs.
Sunderland v Manchester United, Capital One Cup, Stadium of Light, 7.45pm, 7 January 2014
Sunderland (4-1-4-1): Mannone; Celustka, O’Shea, Brown, Dossena; Cattermole; Giaccherini, Gardner, Larsson, Johnson; Altidore. Subs from: Ki, Colback, Fletcher, Pickford, Bardsley, Alonso, Roberge, Borini, Ba, Karlsson, Mavrias
United (4-4-2): De Gea; Smalling, Evans, Vidić, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Cleverley, Januzaj; Hernández, Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Buttner, Zaha, Fletcher, Anderson, Giggs, Kagawa
Sunderland 39 Draw 36 United 61
Referee: Andre Marriner
Assistant Referees: Sian Massey and Peter Bankes
Fourth Official: Craig Pawson
There are at least a couple of ways to assess Manchester United’s performance in Ukraine this week. That, as David Moyes and captain Nemanja Vidić have oft expressed, United’s defensive solidity and safety-first approach was key to securing a point in a tough away fixture. The alternate theory is less complimentary, although equally compelling: that the quality, or lack thereof, of Moyes’ squad has stripped the Scot’s confidence to such an extent that he no longer trusts to an open game against even middling opponents.
Good job that United faces nothing of the sort this weekend, cynics might add, with the Reds visiting managerless relegation-threatened Sunderland for what must surely be an open three points.
But there is more at stake for Moyes than Premier League position alone, important though that is even at this early stage of the campaign. After all, three league defeats on the spin would be a first for United in more than a decade.
And if the Reds cannot afford to drop further behind in the title race then the club’s new manager has little room to play with when it comes to confidence; of his players, of the media, and the club’s supporters. Indeed, defeat on Wearside could leave United close to the bottom three by the weekend’s conclusion.
Crisis? Now that would be a crisis.
Yet, Moyes is far more upbeat in his prognosis, speaking this week of his confidence not just in his players, but the club’s choice of new manager. Well, he would say that.
Still, the 50-year-old has made little secret of his desire for new blood – of the type and quality to go straight into the first team rather than pad out an already large squad. Whether Moyes achieves that result this January is another question it seems.
“Look, the quality of the players here is really top-end,” said the Scot. “They are great players to work with but, undoubtedly, we will, in time, try and make that better – the job is to make progress.
“They won the league last year but I want to try and progress on that, try to win it again and try to win the cups if possible as well.
“We’ll also look to add to the squad if the right players become available. I’ll look at January but I wouldn’t want people to have big expectations of what we would sign or do in January because I don’t think January has, in the main, been a great month to sign really at the top.”
Barely a week after executive vice president Ed Woodward briefed media outlets that Moyes’ transfer budget is substantial the manager has scotched thoughts of a spending frenzy in M16 this winter. It all sounds so familiar.
Whatever activity happens – or doesn’t – in January, Moyes has a substantial squad from which to select for the trip to the north east. While Rio Ferdinand and Tom Cleverley remain injury doubts, Wayne Rooney should return. The striker sat out United’s draw in Donetsk after he took a blow to his shin in training.
United’s back four should select itself after a solid performance in Ukraine, while Moyes is likely to revert to four across midfield for the Saturday evening kick-off. Michael Carrick, Marouanne Fellaini and two from Shinki Kagawa, Ashley Young, Nani and Antonio Valencia will make up United’s engine room.
Sunderland, meanwhile, has enjoyed a mini revival under temporary manager Kevin Ball. Sunderland owner Ellis Short made the sensible, if poorly timed, decision to fire Paolo di Canio, with the Italian widely believed to have lost all confidence in his methods throughout the Sunderland dressing room.
“It’s an important game we want to win. We’ll pick a team that we think can get a result,” said Moyes on Friday.
“I think I went there last time with Everton when Paolo Di Canio had just got the job and I lost in that game. It was probably one of the only games I lost at Everton in the last 11 or 12 matches. We didn’t lose that many.
“We go up there now with a new manager again, Kevin Ball. He’s very experienced, he knows the club and knows the players. He’ll have watched all the games and he’ll know what he has to do in this short-term period. Whether he gets the job or not Sunderland look as if they played quite well in the last couple of games.”
Loan striker Fabio Borini returns to the Sunderland squad after being ineligible to play against parent club Liverpool last weekend. However, former Red Wes Brown, together with Steven Fletcher and Andrea Dossena are all out, although John O’Shea will play.
Sunderland beat Peterborough in the league cup, but lost somewhat unfortunately to Liverpool last weekend in two matches under Ball. The 48-year-old coach in unlikely to take the job full-time, but the sense of relief ringing round the Stadium of Light against the Merseysiders was palpable.
Still, it is a match United should win – must some might say. Defeat might leave United on the edge of the relegation zone, while even a point is likely to see Moyes’ outfit some 10 points behind the Premier League leaders. Not a position from which many return to claim the title even at this stage of the season.
“We have to perform well at Sunderland, like we did against Shakhtar, in terms of our defending,” said captain Vidić. With the quality we have up front, we are always able to score goals. I think there’s no question about that. But we have to defend right and have the right mentality to ensure we can be in a good position.”
With a promising set of fixtures in the run up to Christmas the time is surely now for Moyes’ side to come out of its shell. The cocoon was self-imposed in Donetsk. No repeat necessary on Wearside.
Sunderland v Manchester United, Premier League, Stadium of Light, 5.30pm, 5 October 2013
Sunderland (4-5-1): Westwood; Gardner, O’Shea, Cuellar, Colback; Ki Sung-Yeung, Larsson, Celustka, Cattermole, Johnson; Altidore. Subs from: Mannone, Celustka, Valentin, El-Hadji Ba, Mavrias, Wickham, Ji Dong-Won, Giaccherini
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Fellaini, Welbeck; Rooney; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Buttner, Evans, Jones, Valencia, Anderson, Young, Januzaj, Giggs, Kagawa, Hernández
Sunderland 39 Draw 36 United 60
Referee: Chris Foy
Assistants: A Garratt, S Burt
Fourth Official: P Dowd
0 – 3
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
“93:20, 13 May 2012,” reads the banner now proudly displayed at Eastlands – the time and date marking Manchester City’s first Premier League title, secured deep into injury time against Queens Park Rangers last spring. Meanwhile, over at the Stadium of Light Sir Alex Ferguson’s players sank in disappointment as the news filtered through of City’s late triumph. In Sunderland, where United had won to no avail, a once proud home support stooped lower still and danced the ‘Poznan’ in mock celebration. Small club, small mentality as Ferguson once noted of another club.
Sunderland supporters’ joy last May adds a minor edge to an otherwise mundane match at Old Trafford this weekend – victory in which could stretch Manchester United’s lead at the head of the Premier League to nine points.
After all, this is a fixture that Ferguson’s side almost always wins, despite a rash of ex-Reds in the Sunderland squad in recent years and a steady stream of loanees. Little wonder Ferguson used his weekly press conference to chide Sunderland fans’ “disappointing reaction.”
No better tie, then, to ;rehabilitate Nemanja Vidić, with the Serbian defender set to return to first team action after three months on the sidelines. Vidić has suffered two serious knee injuries over the past year that have restricted the 30-year-old United captain to less than a dozen hugely rusty appearances. And with Jonny Evans suffering injury during United’s last-gasp victory over City last weekend, the Serbian’s return this weekend comes at an ideal moment.
“Having Vida back in the squad is a big, big one for us,” said Ferguson, who also confirmed that Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa is back in training.
“His experience, his ability to head the ball, his offensive qualities are well renowned now and he’s our captain. Whether I start him or not, that’s another issue. But it’s great to have him back.
“We hope we’ve given him the proper rehabilitation. Coming back from the last injury, we gave him a long rehabilitation and I thought it was a good one. But unfortunately he suffered another injury. In fact, in the last year and four months or so, I think he’s only played about 10 games. That’s not a lot of football for a man who’s 30, 31.”
Should Vidić start on the bench, Chris Smalling will come into the side – reward for an outstanding appearance as substitute against City last weekend. ;Meanwhile, goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard is available again after the Dane missed last week’s fixture to witness the birth of his son, and Ferguson will make a late call on Wayne Rooney with the striker struck down by illness this week.
Tom Cleverley, outstanding against City last weekend, may drop to the bench, with veterans Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs in contention.
Injuries and illness aside, the Scot will be keen for his side to build on ;an outstanding victory at Eastlands, with the attending boost in morale matched by the fall-out in the Blue quarter of Manchester. While Roberto Mancini claimed another moral victory, tensions now abound in the Eastlands dressing room.
Indeed, fixtures against Sunderland, Swansea City, Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion in December offer the Reds a realistic chance of reaching the New Year with a commanding Premier League lead – an outcome few would have predicted after United’s meek opening day defeat at Everton.
Meanwhile, Sunderland arrive at Old Trafford in wretched form, but having secured a desperately needed victory over Reading on Tuesday. Yet, the Mackems’ lowly Premier League position has placed experience manager Martin O’Neil under pressure to improve results and drag Sunderland out of a relegation fight.
It is a false position, claims Ferguson, who is never slow to offer support to those in the managers’ union.
“Martin O’Neill has won three titles with Celtic and taken them to the Uefa Cup final,” said Ferguson in support of the embattled Irishman.
“He’s been at Aston Villa, he’s been at Leicester City. He was asked a question last week which was absolutely ridiculous, about whether he still had self-belief. It was a silly question, an absolute insult because he is an outstanding manager.”
O’Neil could be without Adam Johnson and Danny Rose through injury, although key striker Steven Fletcher should be available. Former Red Wes Brown is on the sidelines with injury, but John O’Shea is likely to start in central defence. Another ex-United player Phil Bardsley is out with a long-term problem, as is hard-tackling midfielder Lee Cattermole.
Absences will do little to help O’Neil, with Sunderland’s executive management likely to be under pressure to remove the manager should the team suffer heavy defeat at Old Trafford, followed by a challenging Christmas programme.
And the visitors have little to cheer in history: not since 11 May 1968 have the Mackems beaten United at Old Trafford. Goals from Colin Suggett and George Mulhall handed United defeat and – with some prescience – City the title on the final day of the season.
There are no confirmed reports of the ‘Poznan’ making an appearance all those years ago.
Manchester United v Sunderland – Premier League, Old Trafford – Saturday 15 December 2012, 3pm
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Vidić, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Scholes; Young, Rooney, Welbeck; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Wootton, Smalling, Buttner, Fletcher, Jones, Cleverley, Powell, Valencia, Giggs, Hernandez.
Sunderland (4-5-1): Mignolet; Gardner, O’Shea, Cuellar, Kilgallon; Johnson, Larsson, Sessegnon, Colback, McClean; Fletcher. Subs from: ;Westwood, Bramble, Vaughan, Campbell, McFadden, Wickham, Saha, Ji
Referee: C Foy
Assistants: S Child, H Lennard
Fourth official: A Taylor
Head to Head
Last 10: United 8, Sunderland 0, Draw 2
Overall: United 58, Sunderland 39, Draw 36
- Michael Carrick has again excelled with the ball this season, but the midfielder’s ability is overshadowed by defensive lapses – only Rafael da Silva has conceded more fouls for the Reds this season, with Carrick being pulled up by the officials 15 times;
- Ashley Young’s form has been inconsistent this season, but there are few doubts about the players commitment last weekend, with the winger covering more ground – 6.71 miles – than any other player against City;
- Rafael’s development is continuing apace this season, especially in attacking areas – the defender has provided 17 crosses and four assists before the turn of the year;
- Robin van Persie continues to demonstrate value for money this season – the Dutchman is second in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index for attempts-to-goals ratio, with a place on the scoresheet once every 4.54 attempts this season;
- Rooney has been challenged by his manager to score more goals, although England’s talisman currently sits third in the Index with seven assists;
- Sunderland beat Reading 3-0 at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday, with goals from James McClean, Steven Fletcher and Stephane Sessegnon;
- McClean continues to excite the Stadium of Light – the Irishman has provided 35 crosses this season, and covered 76.44 miles;
- Striker Fletcher continues to prove a smart acquisition by O’Neill, scoring every 3.71 attempts on goal;
- Meanwhile, former City player Johnson has provided a squad-high four assists and 40 crosses;
- Sebastian Larsson was both Sunderland’s quickest player and hardest worker against Reading – the Swede was recorded at 19.86 mph and covered for a solid 6.69 miles in total.
The final weekend, and another title won or lost for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. The drama, so those in charge of TV schedules tell us, couldn’t be greater, with the Premier League decided at the 38th game of another unpredictable season. Yet, for many Manchester United fans it is a campaign ending in an altogether more underwhelming fashion. Not so much last day glory, as after the lord mayor’s show. After all, bar a truly shocking result at Eastlands on Sunday, the Premier League title will head to Manchester City for the first time in 44 years.
City host relegation-threatened Queens Park Rangers, while United travel to Martin O’Neil’s Sunderland, and the Blues’ superior goal difference will separate Reds and Blues should points remain equal at 5pm Sunday afternoon.
If City does claim the Premier League as expected then few can begrudge Roberto Mancini’s outfit the glory, with the men in Blue having proven the more durable side during the last month of the campaign. Words not often spoken during Ferguson’s 25-year reign at Old Trafford. It is the least that Abu Dhabi could expect for its £930 million investment in club and players. And, many will argue, the inevitable outcome of six years under-investment by the Glazer family at Old Trafford.
Not that many offers of congratulations will cross the great Manchester divide whatever Sunday’s results. Nine months, 76 games, 178 goals, and 172 points later – and one half of the city is sure to head home disappointed.
The weekend’s fixtures mean that more than one eye will be on City’s game back in Manchester while United take on Sunderland, although the hope that Mark Hughes’ QPR side will pull off a shock result will be rendered meaningless if United do not win at the Stadium of Light.
Indeed, claiming three points on Wearside could still pose a challenge, with O’Neil’s side having finished the season strongly enough to avoid relegation under Norther Irishman’s stewardship.
“It’s not going to be easy for us up there and we know that,” said Ferguson on Friday.
“We’re going there with a chance of winning the league and you know it’ll never be easy. These last-day games where have a chance of winning the league, three times we’ve won it and once we lost it at West Ham. They’re not easy.
“It doesn’t matter if Bolton win, QPR still have to get a point. Can it really transmit itself to players if other teams are losing? If they’re down with five minutes to go or something like that, but I don’t think it works that way.
“I think the disappointment of City losing the game would be unbelievable and untold at this moment in time [as regards] what effect it could have on them. QPR are at the other end of the spectrum, some players could be put on the transfer list, salaries halved and things like that. Relegation would have a dramatic effect on the club. There’s two ends of the spectrum but, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if we don’t win. We have to focus on that – that’s our job.”
In a campaign where United will finish trophyless for the first time since 2005 should results go against Ferguson’s side, the Scot says analysis of a difficult campaign can wait until the final result. Indeed, focusing on the positive, Ferguson claims that the development of United’s youngsters mean that this is less the ‘end of an empire’, but a season of transition. Time will tell whether the Scot is right given United’s likely strategic decision not to invest at the top of the market in the coming summer.
“I think we can think about that after the events and analyse it properly,” adds the 70-year-old, who has won 12 Premier League titles in 19 seasons.
“There’s no point doing it now as nothing’s been decided and it’s the last game of the season, which is fantastic for the neutral and the media but agony for both clubs. We do tend to get there in the end but it looks like we’re going to miss out this season.
“We’re not looking as though it’s the end of an era for us. In many ways, it’s the start of one for us. The challenge will be really obvious to them [the players] now. If they lose the league, as we did with Chelsea a couple of years ago, we did something about it. Hopefully, we can do so again.”
Ferguson will have to shuffle his pack once again, with injuries ruling out Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Danny Welbeck. It has been the story of the campaign – Anderson, Darren Fletcher, Nemanja Vidić and Michael Owen will all still be missing from Ferguson’s first team squad for the trip to Wearside.
Injuries mean the Scot may have to pair Rio Ferdinand with Phil Jones in central defence, while Rafael or Fabio da Silva will start at right-back. Javier Hernández is likely to keep his place along side Wayne Rooney in attack in what will be Dimitar Berbatov’s last game for the club. Michael Owen, also out of contract this summer, is unlikely to make the match day squad.
Whatever the selection for Sunday’s match Ferguson faces the challenge of raising his team’s spirits after the flat performance against Swansea last weekend. United beat the Welsh side 2-0 at Old Trafford having already seen City dispatch Newcastle in the north east. Indeed, if the mood in United’s camp has been downcast this week it will come as little surprise. But there is little point in self pity – after all Ferguson’s side has blown the eight point lead it held barely a month ago.
“At the beginning of the week, the team was really down,” said United captain Patrice Evra admitted.
“And we were really down before the game against Swansea last weekend because we expected a little miracle from Newcastle. But it didn’t happen. Now we just believe. We’re level on points going into the final day.
“Maybe people will say I’m crazy or that I’m only saying this because I’m a Manchester United player, but I still believe we can win this title. I know the destiny of the title is not in our hands, but we will just make sure we start the game well against Sunderland.
“It’s not an easy place to go but I think we will win in front of all their fans. We have no choice but to believe. If we want to keep believing in the miracle we have to beat Sunderland. If we score first, maybe the City fans in the stadium will start to be nervous. When you are nervous, you rush things and you don’t do the things you want to do. That’s why I still believe, but we must make sure we are ready against Sunderland.”
Meanwhile, Sunderland manager O’Neil has injury concerns of his own heading into the game. Former United players Wes Brown and Kieron Richardson miss the tie through injury, while Seb Larsson is also out. However, fit again Titus Bramble should start for the Black Cats.
Whatever O’Neil’s selection, United need to run out winners. The omens are good – the home side has little to play for, chasing neither a European place, nor threatened by relegation – and United’s four victories in the past five matches at the Stadium of Light bode well. Meanwhile, Sunderland has drawn five of the side’s last seven Premier League matches, and won only two in the last 12, while United has lost only twice in 17.
Pressure can tell though, with United folding under it in recent weeks, and City thriving much against the Blues’ typecast. But it’s the pressure that Evra and his United players hope brings out the worst in Mancini’s City side over at Eastlands Sunday afternoon.
The odds look slim, but as Evra concludes, all that is left now is belief.
Sunderland versus Manchester United, Premier League, Stadium of Light, 13 May 2012, 3pm.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Mignolet; Bardsley, Turner, Bramble, O’Shea; Cattermole, Gardner, Colback, McClean; Sessegnon, Ji Dong-Won. Subs from: Westwood, Kilgallon, Bridge, Meyler, Elmohamady, Campbell, Bendtner.
United: (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Jones, Evra; Valencia, Scholes, Carrick, Young; Rooney; Hernández. Subs from: Amos, Lindegaard, Fabio, Fryers, Cleverley, Giggs, Park, Nani, Berbatov, Owen.
- Swansea worked the United midfield hard last weekend with Michael Carrick covering the most distance individually from either team at 7.39 miles;
- Compared against other Premier League strikers Wayne Rooney is ranked fifth for distance covered this season at 191.7 miles in total this season. Fulham’s Clint Dempsey has covered the most ground of any striker;
- Rooney is ranked second overall in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index having scored 26 league goals this season – he is the highest scoring Englishman this season, four behind Robin van Persie;
- Rooney has picked up just the one yellow card this season;
- Patrice Evra is the highest ranked player in the Index to have not scored a goal this season. The United captain has however completed 73.2 per cent of all the tackles he attempted;
- Lee Cattermole has been one of Sunderland’s hardest players to beat this season, having completed 68.6 per cent of all tackles attempted – he has won 72 tackles this season;
- Cattermole’s best game this season came against West Bromwich Albion on the 1 October 2011 – when the midfielder attempted 22 tackles, completing 16 at 72.27 per cent won;
- Ahmed Elmohamady is the only Egyptian player in the Premier League this season and has managed just three shots on target, scoring one goal in the process.
Referee: Howard Webb (Rotherham)
Assistants: P Kirkup, M Mullarkey
Fourth Official: L Probert