In his autobiography, Roy Keane claimed that most teams visiting Old Trafford were beaten before they came out of the tunnel, or in the worst cases, before they got off the bus! Fiddling with team selection and formations will be as effective as rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic if the Mackems don’t get the basics right of defending as a unit and good tactical movement.
The Black Cats victory over Reading was only their third in 24 league fixtures dating back to last season, and their first against a side finishing with 11 men since March. In contrast, United have claimed a maximum nine points from their visits to Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City, the first time the club have achieved that feat since the 1913/14 season and forms part of their impressive form that has yielded nine wins in their last 10 league games.
The last time Manchester United faced Sunderland was on the final day of last season, when United were denied their 20th league title by two late Manchester City goals. When the news filtered through to the United players, who were ready to celebrate their title success on the Stadium of Light pitch, Sunderland fans celebrated their despair and goaded United by performing City’s famous Poznan celebration. Ferguson vowed the he would not forget Sunderland’s gloating, and Saturday’s match at Old Trafford is his first chance to exact revenge.
Over the years Sunderland have suffered several times at the ‘Theatre of Nightmares’ including a 4-0 defeat in 2000 and 5-0 in 1996. However, more recently the Black Cats have fared comparatively better with the odd goal defeat and a couple of draws, one in 2006 and were denied a rare win by a tragic own goal at the death in 2009. The Mackems last success came in the days of Best, Charlton and Law in 1968, when an unexpected 2-1 victory helped hand the league title to Manchester City, who won at Newcastle the same day – could history spookily repeat itself? Thankfully, whatever the outcome Sunderland chairman Ellis Short has clarified that Martin O’Neill is under no pressure, despite speculation to the contrary by Geordie-nemesis, Alan Shearer.
But now its time to focus on the matter in hand, and rather than linger on individual players and tactics, I feel the result will hinge on three personal battles.
Robin Van Persie vs. John O’Shea
Sunderland’s captain, John O’Shea spent 12 seasons at Old Trafford and played 393 games for the Red Devils, including the 2009 Champions League final. However, he is up against a master craftsman. Not Wayne Rooney who last week became the youngest player to hit 150 goals in the Premier League, but the Flying Dutchman. Van Persie reportedly rejected a £300,000-a-week pay deal at Manchester City to join United for £22 million. It seems to be money well spent as the Holland international has settled in well, scoring an impressive 11 league goals this season.
Rio Ferdinand vs. Steven Fletcher
Based on current form you could toss a coin – but keep it away from Rio’s face please. Fletcher has scored seven league goals, which is a decent return for Sunderland’s shot-shy attack. With United looking uncharacteristically fragile at the back this season, keeping just four clean sheets in 24 fixtures, he could bag his eighth if he gets some decent service.
Nemanja Vidic vs. Adam Johnson
Sir Alex Ferguson will be delighted to have his skipper back in the fold after seeing former Sunderland loan star, Jonny Evans, limp out of action last week. Fergie will be hoping that Vidic will help to help plug his defensive leaks, especially as Johnson seems to be coming into form with goals against Chelsea and Everton recently.
Although Christmas is a time of miracles, don’t waste time praying for divine intervention; and you certainly don’t expect pity from the Devils in Red. To be blunt, Sunderland haven’t won at Old Trafford for 44 years and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
Prediction: Away defeat
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