Sunderland vs Manchester United: Let’s stick it to the city lovers
Manchester United finally return to action after another seemingly long international break, looking forward to the final straight of the season, eager to get over the finishing line as quickly as possible. Sir Alex Ferguson famously coined the phrase squeaky bum time for this phase of the season, as it is usually around the end of March and beginning of April where titles can be won and lost. Indeed it seems poignant that United return to the Stadium of Light this weekend, the scene of horror for every United fan, as for 20 seconds, the players, the management and the fanbase thought they had done enough. However, that joy was very much short-lived as the Sunderland fans told everyone involved with United what had happened at the Etihad, with a humungous cheer and a mocking Poznan. To lose the league title to your bitter rivals in the last minute of a 38 game-season, left an indelible mental scar to the United fanbase and made the Stadium of Light resemble a stadium of darkness. A wounded ego was very much received that day and it still gnaws at Sir Alex Ferguson and his troops to that day.
Thankfully from a United perspective, this wound is slowly being healed this season. Ferguson has very clearly used this bad experience at Sunderland to motivate his players and guard against complacency this season, with everyone at United seemingly hellbent on getting the league back. This unquenchable hunger for success has been epitomized by Robin Van Persie, whose lack of a league title on his CV, has driven him and United to edge the bigger games this season. His winner against City might prove to be pivotal and his goals against Chelsea and Liverpool away may have swung the pendulum United’s way, as Roberto Mancini has opined throughout the season. United go into the game 15 points ahead of City and some may say the title race is over already.
However, I for one am not taking anything for granted until Nemanja Vidic has his monstrous hands on the trophy. It can still very much go wrong. Any fan who attended the 4-4 game against Everton at Old Trafford will attest to that, a negative surprise result against Sunderland may upset Uniteds momentum and give City a highly unlikely but possible sniff of chasing their neighbours down again. That said, if United were to win on Saturday lunchtime, it would put enormous pressure on City and extend the gap to 18 points before they play Newcastle. The next three games for United could define their season. If United beat Sunderland, they will go into the next league game, the Manchester Derby at Old Trafford, brimming with confidence and looking to avenge the harrowing 6-1 drubbing received last year. By beating City, United could virtually seal the title by beating their neighbours, a truly tantalizing prospect. Of course this is all hypothetical as City gaining ground on United this weekend could make the Old Trafford faithful a bit jittery coming into the derby. Sandwiched between these two league games will be a FA Cup quarter-final at Stamford Bridge, just two days after Uniteds visit to Sunderland. Rotation and freshness will be a crucial factor into navigating the two games and it is up to Ferguson to get the balance right.
United are likely to introduce Paul Scholes back into the fray after a long absence to freshen up the midfield. Nani is likely to get the nod over Antonio Valencia, who played away in Ecuador this week. Phil Jones also makes a timely return from injury for the Red Devils and may be used in a midfield anchor role either against Chelsea or Sunderland. Rio Ferdinand is likely to partner either Vidic or Evans at the back, after his controversial pre-conditioned break over the international period. With Robin Van Persie breaking his mini scoring drout for Holland and Rooney scoring twice for England, I expect the front two to start, with either Welbeck or Young providing support. Both Shinji Kagawa and Chicharito will more than likely be rested for Monday night, having travelled long-distances for Japan and Mexico respectively.
With regards to Sunderland, they often improve their performances against the bigger teams, as their recent results against Manchester City have proven. United’s record away against North-East clubs has generally been very good but they have suffered bad results in the past such as 3-0 Loss away to Newcastle last season and a 4-1 drubbing away to Boro, so this result is by no means a foregone conclusion, despite Sunderlands recent poor form.
Having suffered the terrible blow of their top scorer and record signing Steven Fletcher being injured for the rest of the season, as well as the loss of their feisty combative captain Lee Cattermole, the signs look ominous for Martin O’Neill’s side. Their once stable position seems to look more and more precarious, as Wigan are seeming to be repeating their escape act again, dragging Sunderland back into the relegation dog-fight. With James McClean and Stephane Sessegnon in the team, they have the quality to hurt United. Their main threat will be from set pieces, having a tall back four, containing the likes of Cuellar and O’Shea, with Sebastian Larsson providing quality delivery. The absence of Fletcher, may enable Connor Wickham to start and give him the opportunity to shine in an important match.
Manchester City will be hoping their old pal Adam Johnson will be able to dent United’s charge with a goal or two. However with an old United contingent present at Sunderland in O’Shea, Bardsley, Brown and , Ferguson will undoubtedly bribe them to throw the game in United’s favour!! Jokes and conspiracy theories aside, it will be a true test on Saturday for the Red Devils and will be a pivotal weekend in the Premiership race. Let squeaky-bum time commence!