Although Manchester United fought their way to a sixth clean sheet and maintained their 15 point lead atop the Premier League table in what was a rather routine victory over Sunderland, the talking point in the aftermath will not revolve around the match itself, but the surprise dismissal of Mackems’ manager, Martin O’Neill. With just seven games to go, the decision seems odd to say the very least, but when you consider the performance Sunderland showed – one which was indicative of their season, by and large – then perhaps the outcome wasn’t too unexpected.
For Manchester United, the game was an opportunity duly taken to step closer to their 20th league title, but it was by no means a vintage performance from Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. With at least some of his attention drawn to the impending FA Cup clash with Chelsea on Monday, the Scot picked a side in which Michael Carrick, at 31, was the oldest player. The first half was encroaching on ‘good’ with the likes of Van Persie, Kagawa and Buttner looking lively, and it was the Dutchman who assisted in opening the scoring when his shot was deflected in off the perennially hopeless Titus Bramble.
However, United dropped off the pace in the second half, which a surprising development considering actually how poor Sunderland played. The Black Cats not only ceded superiority in possession by some margin, they managed just one shot on target from nine attempts – which would go some way to explaining why they are the league’s lowest scorers this season. In essence, the game turned into quite a drab affair, with United failing to capitalise on the few good chances they carved out.
Put into context though, the game just required a win, regardless of the quality of the play in achieving the victory. Maintaining the 15 point lead while ensuring his squad was fully prepared to the tip to Stanford Bridge on Monday was the ideal outcome for Sir Alex. The only blemish came in the form of an injury to right-back Rafael, although De Gea nursed a sore nose for 60 minutes after a clash with captain Nemanja Vidic. The young Spaniard was in the process of claiming a high ball into the box when he collided face-to-face with the burly Serbian. Despite the clash, it was refreshing to see the ‘keeper coming to claim the cross as it had been an aspect of his game that has come under fierce criticism. Instead, United have now kept seven clean sheets in a row in the Premier League – 11 in their last 30 – and condemnation hasn’t been levelled at De Gea in any instance since the Tottenham game in January. And even then he’d had a terrific 89 minutes.
One man who is likely to start against Chelsea also played a full 90 minutes against Sunderland, and that is the practically ever-present figure of Michael Carrick. For much of the season, the former Spurs and West Ham man has been the pivotal fixture in the United starting XI, and the game against Sunderland was just a further example of his attempts to silence the criticism that he has faced in some quarters since his move to Old Trafford in 2006. His passing was a delight, ranging from the simple to the exquisite, as he transitioned the side from defence to attack in seconds. United will hope their most consistent midfielder can continue his impressive form right through to the end of the season, although, it remains to be seen whether the club will have to wait that long before they get their hands on the Premier League crown.
By no means a classic performance from either side, the result leaves Manchester United inexorably closer to the title, but plunges Sunderland firmly into the relegation battle with just seven fixtures left on the calendar.