Manchester United v Sunderland
Last Sunday’s hard-fought, last-gasp victory at the Etihad stretched United’s lead at the top of the table to an attractive 6 points. There’s a long way to go, of course, but considering the lengthy injury list already suffered this season, as well as sustained periods of kamikaze defending, it’s a surprisingly healthy advantage to hold. With a kind festive fixture list – including a Santa-sized splattering of home matches (3 of next 4 at OT) – going into the New Year with, at the very least, the current gap of 6 points maintained is a realistic possibility. First up, Sunderland at Old Trafford, in a more-frequent-this-season-or-is-it-just-me 3pm Saturday kick-off.
Sunderland, who picked up only their third victory of the season against Reading in midweek, currently lie one point above the drop-zone in 15th place. After spending relatively heavily in the summer, their season is not panning out in the way their fans, and manager Martin O’Neil, had anticipated. A win at Old Trafford, while being their second away victory of the season, could also be enough to see them rise one place in the table, above neighbours Newcastle, who, ironically, play Manchester City in the early kick-off.
AT A GLANCE
United: Anderson, Nani and Evans out. Kagawa begins training on Monday. Vidic should feature. Rooney should be fit despite illness.
Home record: P7 W6 D0 L1 F19 A9 Pts18
Home form: W L W W W W
Sunderland: Wes Brown, Lee Cattermole and David Meyler all out. Phil Bardsley, Danny Rose and Adam Johnson all doubts. Steven Fletcher top league goalscorer (7). Simon Mignolet and Sebastian Larsson only ever-presents this season.
Away record: P8 W1 D4 L3 F8 A11 Pts7
Away form:D L D L W L
Previous meetings at Old Trafford: United 1-0 Sunderland (5-11-11), United 2-0 Sunderland (26-12-10), United 2-2 Sunderland (3-10-09), United 1-0 Sunderland (6-12-08)
Referee: Chris Foy. 20 yellow cards in 11 PL games (1.82 avg.) – the third lowest in the division. Yet to brandish a red card or award a penalty.
United haven’t lost a home league fixture against Sunderland since 1968 – George Best scoring the only goal in a 1-2 defeat. 16 wins and 9 draws since then.
Watch out for the 60′ to 70′ mark – at Old Trafford, 29% of all United goals scored, as well as 32% of all goals conceded, have come during this period.
United have averaged 2.71 goals every home match, Sunderland have conceded 1.38 goals each away fixture.
Each of the last three league fixtures at Old Trafford have seen Sunderland score an own goal. Anton Ferdinand x2 and (Agent) Wes Brown the culprits.
Sunderland concede the highest percentage of their goals (away from home) between the 40 and 50 minute mark (38%). Concentration before and after half-time?
United have gained 21 points from losing positions this season. Sunderland? 1.
Wayne Rooney on playing Sunderland: “If there is one team that I want to beat this season it will be Sunderland.”
He was referring to, of course, the celebrations of the Sunderland fans at end of the final match of last season. A news filtered through of City’s last-gasp win, the home fans cheered as though their own side had won the title. It was disappointing to see, and something the United players clearly remember. While Sir Alex Ferguson has this week stated that “revenge won’t come into anything on Saturday”, it will be impossible to suppress one or two lingering anti-Sunderland feelings in the collective Red mind. Fully expect to see some choice celebrations from both home players and fans should United score. (Of course they’ll score!)
Anders Lindegaard has declared himself available again after missing last week’s derby when his wife went into labour. Fingers crossed he takes a seat on the bench, allowing de Gea to continue in goal. While Fergie will no doubt throw several selection curve-balls between now and May, I don’t see him making another goalkeeping change tomorrow.
In defence, Jonny Evans has been ruled out with the hamstring injury he picked up at the Etihad last week. While his loss is a blow, having captain Nemanja Vidic available again negates some of this disappointment. While he may only be fit enough for a place on the bench, expect him to feature at some point. With minutes needed for several players before the busy festive period, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling should also feature. With an 8 day gap until our next league fixture – Swansea (A) – and the beginning of the Christmas programme, Saturday’s match is the perfect opportunity to get some game-time on the clock.
After an energetic, composed performance against City, it would be disappointing not to see Tom Cleverley line up in the centre of midfield again. His partnership with Michael Carrick was one of the major plus points of the win and deserves another opportunity to evolve. But, again, with the Christmas period fast approaching, changes could be likely. Antonio Valencia returned last week but still looks far from his best – but take into account it was his first game since his own injury lay-off, of course – and Danny Welbeck could come into the side in his place. On the other side, Ashley Young continued a mini-renaissance in form with another effective display at City and could keep his place on the left-hand side.
Up top, Wayne Rooney should start, given his comments in relation to Sunderland this week. He’ll be chomping at the bit (as usual, I know) to see off the Black Cats and, having been ill in the week, and an 8 day rest period after the game, he should play to keep up his all-too-easily-depleted fitness levels. Robin van Persie could be due a weekend off, with Javier Hernandez ready and able to come in if Fergie sees fit. Again, topping up competitive minutes before the busy weeks to come is crucial. Expect several changes and/or substitutions.
Predicted United line-up: De Gea, Jones, Smalling, Ferdinand, Evra, Welbeck, Cleverley, Carrick, Young, Rooney, Hernandez
Martin O’Neill on his side’s trip to Old Trafford: “Winning the game during the week (3-0 victory v Reading) has given us that confidence boost and we go there in very fine spirits.”
Sunderland’s midweek defeat of Reading was only their third of the season, their second at the Stadium of Light. Away from home, his side have managed just one win, scoring a measly 8 goals (only 5 sides have worse). They have, however, only conceded 11 goals on their travels, a better record than United. Hard to beat, perhaps (a 3-0 defeat at Manchester City is the only time more than one goal has separated them from the home side) but far from electric. Martin O’Neill has fashioned a hard-working, functional side, without the necessary excitement or flair his Aston Villa side once possessed.
Summer signing Steven Fletcher returned to the side against Reading, to great effect. O’Neill spoke this week of “the confidence is the dressing room becoming greater because he was fit.” While not the possessor of blistering pace, the Scotsman is strong presence in the air, and a more than decent finisher. He is the scorer of 41% of all their league goals this season; he will be their biggest threat. Considering United’s poor defending from crosses and set-pieces this season, special attention must be paid to Fletcher, who can and will hurt us from these avenues if we allow it.
Elsewhere in the side, United legend John O’Shea will captain from the heart of the defence. A United stalwart for over 10 years, the Irishman should be awarded a rich reception on his first (playing) return to Old Trafford since his move to Wearside. He’ll be partnered at the back by Carlos Cuellar and, depending on whether or not Danny Rose and Phil Bardsley pass late fitness tests, Matthew Killgallon and/or Titus Bramble. Much will be decided on the day with regards to the Black Cats’ last line of defence. Simon Mignolet, an ever-present this season, will start in goal.
In midfield, Sebastian Larsson is the club’s only ever-present this season. A well-known danger from dead balls, the Sweden international should start. He will provide dangerous delivery from wide positions, as well as free-kicks and corners. His partnership with Fletcher (i.e. he crosses, Fletcher finishes) will be a danger. Elsewhere, skillful forward Stephane Sessegnon will have to be watched closely. While not hitting the heights of last season (7 goals, 9 assists), he still has the potential to create a goal. His midweek 90th minute strike against Reading – only his third of the season – will have done him the world of good. The rest of the midfield should feature Jack Colback, David Vaughan and Craig Gardner. All three are hard-working, determined players, who will make it hard for United to break them down. Gardner, in particular, will offer a forward threat through his decent long-range shooting. We will need to be wary of him in and around the penalty area.
Predicted Sunderland line-up: Mignolet, Cuellar, O’Shea, Kilgallon, Vaughan, Larsson, Gardner, Colback, McClean, Sessegnon, Fletcher
With second-placed City playing in the weekend’s early kick-off, United will go into the game knowing whether their lead has been cut by 3 points, or can be extended to 9. Either way, after the events witnessed at the end of last season, motivation to win will not be lacking (not that it ever is, of course). Sunderland will travel to Old Trafford in decent spirits flowing their midweek win, and will know, also after the early kick-off, whether they can leapfrog rivals Newcastle United in the table. Regardless, they will provide a stern test, despite their relatively mediocre away record. Martin O’Neill will have them organised and hard to beat; United will have to show glimpses (hopefully more!) of the great attacking display – especially in the first half – witnessed at the Etihad last week. Entering the festive period a potential 9 points clear will be a massive fillip to the side. As will seeing Nemanja Vidic back on the Old Trafford green, of course.
Score prediction: United 2-0 Sunderland
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