With Manchester United fresh from their scintillating victory over local rivals and noisy neighbours, Manchester City, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men entertain a struggling Sunderland side this Saturday in what is the first of a run of slightly easier fixtures for the Red Devils.
The most welcome piece of good news for the club is the imminent return of club captain, Nemanja Vidic, who is in contention to start against the Black Cats. Despite suffering from a leaky defence for the majority of the season, United have still got the knack of winning when playing poorly. However, with victories over fellow title chasers City, as well as Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, a run of fixtures over the festive period sees them face Sunderland, Swansea, Newcastle and West Brom – a much easier run of games than that which they have already been accustomed to. And, starting with Martin O’Neill’s men, it could be a good spell to pick up some much needed clean sheets and boost that goal difference.
With Van Persie and Rooney both netting in the Manchester derby, it’s clear that United aren’t struggling to find the net, but, as it has been said so many times this season, it’s keeping them out that is the matter. Fortunately, Sunderland have only managed 17 goals in the league, a rate of just over one a game, and despite a good win over struggling Reading behind them, you can’t see any other outcome than a United win.
Vidic is expected to return to the heart of the defence and alleviates more than one headache for Sir Alex; not only will the skipper’s return no doubt bring an air of formidability to the United backline, it also comes at a most opportune time, as fellow centre-back, Jonny Evans, limped out of the Manchester derby last weekend. United did defend much better against Mancini’s men, but both the goals they conceded had a certain amount of misfortune or error in their creation. De Gea made two genuinely brilliant saves to deny Tevez and Silva, only to be finally beaten by a well-placed finish from Yaya Toure, while Zabaleta’s goal came from Ashley Young’s laziness in spotting the danger on the edge of the box from van Persie’s clearance.
Still, the back four were much more secure, but the scare they gave United fans when Sergio Aguero waltzed round all of them with alarming ease before firing a tame shot at De Gea will need to be stamped out. In Vidic, they not only have a player who is tactically astute, but one who is unafraid to do the ‘dirty work’. While Evans is a good defender – not great – and Smalling is coming on leaps and bounds, the Serbian’s sheer physical presence is sometimes enough to make opposing attackers think twice about their next course of action. The towering Serb is a monster in the air and tackles with such ferocity as to warrant the Old Trafford terrace chant “Nemanja, he comes from Serbia, He’ll f**king murder ya.”
In contrast, Sunderland have only won one of their last five games in the Barclays Premier League and never really looked like they wanted to win any of them. Even the 3-0 victory over Reading came at a time when the Royals were, and indeed still are, in a period of internal discontent, both off and on the pitch, and Martin O’Neill has publicly admitted his team need to start playing much better if they are to avoid a relegation battle.
Oddly, Sunderland have conceded less goals than Manchester United this season, with a back four that boasts two ex-United players in John O’Shea and Phil Bardsley, not to mention the perennially injured, Wes Brown, but it is their attacking feats that have let them down. Steven Fletcher remains their only viable goal threat, and O’Neill needs to get the likes of Sessegnon and McClean firing again if he is to trouble United. It is unlikely the returning Nemanja Vidic will be tested too severely, but United’s ability to ship goals this season could legitimately see them concede against anyone with a pulse.
Sunderland are set for a tough Christmas period, with three of their four fixtures lining them up against United, City and Tottenham, all of which you cannot realistically see the Black Cats winning, unless they pose more of a threat going forward. Three points against Southampton is a must, while for United fans, if the Mackems can take anything off City, it would be of benefit to clubs. January is a far easier month for O’Neill’s side to navigate, but Sunderland will have to hope that, even if they lose, they can at least show a little more attacking intent against teams, starting at Old Trafford.
However, much of the pre-match focus will be on Vidic and that will inevitably put him under an immense amount of pressure, but the Serbian has widely been accepted as the best centre-back in world football for some years for good reason. If he can stay fit – and that’s a big ask considering he has started only 10 games in 18 months – then United could be coming out of 2012 with an even more commanding lead over City and hopefully with a few more clean sheets. Sure, the end-to-end rapid scoring and conceding of goals is a fantastic advert for the game of football, but every once in a while it would be nice to see United do the former without accompaniment from the latter.