The final weekend, and another title won or lost for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. The drama, so those in charge of TV schedules tell us, couldn’t be greater, with the Premier League decided at the 38th game of another unpredictable season. Yet, for many Manchester United fans it is a campaign ending in an altogether more underwhelming fashion. Not so much last day glory, as after the lord mayor’s show. After all, bar a truly shocking result at Eastlands on Sunday, the Premier League title will head to Manchester City for the first time in 44 years.
City host relegation-threatened Queens Park Rangers, while United travel to Martin O’Neil’s Sunderland, and the Blues’ superior goal difference will separate Reds and Blues should points remain equal at 5pm Sunday afternoon.
If City does claim the Premier League as expected then few can begrudge Roberto Mancini’s outfit the glory, with the men in Blue having proven the more durable side during the last month of the campaign. Words not often spoken during Ferguson’s 25-year reign at Old Trafford. It is the least that Abu Dhabi could expect for its £930 million investment in club and players. And, many will argue, the inevitable outcome of six years under-investment by the Glazer family at Old Trafford.
Not that many offers of congratulations will cross the great Manchester divide whatever Sunday’s results. Nine months, 76 games, 178 goals, and 172 points later – and one half of the city is sure to head home disappointed.
The weekend’s fixtures mean that more than one eye will be on City’s game back in Manchester while United take on Sunderland, although the hope that Mark Hughes’ QPR side will pull off a shock result will be rendered meaningless if United do not win at the Stadium of Light.
Indeed, claiming three points on Wearside could still pose a challenge, with O’Neil’s side having finished the season strongly enough to avoid relegation under Norther Irishman’s stewardship.
“It’s not going to be easy for us up there and we know that,” said Ferguson on Friday.
“We’re going there with a chance of winning the league and you know it’ll never be easy. These last-day games where have a chance of winning the league, three times we’ve won it and once we lost it at West Ham. They’re not easy.
“It doesn’t matter if Bolton win, QPR still have to get a point. Can it really transmit itself to players if other teams are losing? If they’re down with five minutes to go or something like that, but I don’t think it works that way.
“I think the disappointment of City losing the game would be unbelievable and untold at this moment in time [as regards] what effect it could have on them. QPR are at the other end of the spectrum, some players could be put on the transfer list, salaries halved and things like that. Relegation would have a dramatic effect on the club. There’s two ends of the spectrum but, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if we don’t win. We have to focus on that – that’s our job.”
In a campaign where United will finish trophyless for the first time since 2005 should results go against Ferguson’s side, the Scot says analysis of a difficult campaign can wait until the final result. Indeed, focusing on the positive, Ferguson claims that the development of United’s youngsters mean that this is less the ‘end of an empire’, but a season of transition. Time will tell whether the Scot is right given United’s likely strategic decision not to invest at the top of the market in the coming summer.
“I think we can think about that after the events and analyse it properly,” adds the 70-year-old, who has won 12 Premier League titles in 19 seasons.
“There’s no point doing it now as nothing’s been decided and it’s the last game of the season, which is fantastic for the neutral and the media but agony for both clubs. We do tend to get there in the end but it looks like we’re going to miss out this season.
“We’re not looking as though it’s the end of an era for us. In many ways, it’s the start of one for us. The challenge will be really obvious to them [the players] now. If they lose the league, as we did with Chelsea a couple of years ago, we did something about it. Hopefully, we can do so again.”
Ferguson will have to shuffle his pack once again, with injuries ruling out Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Danny Welbeck. It has been the story of the campaign – Anderson, Darren Fletcher, Nemanja Vidić and Michael Owen will all still be missing from Ferguson’s first team squad for the trip to Wearside.
Injuries mean the Scot may have to pair Rio Ferdinand with Phil Jones in central defence, while Rafael or Fabio da Silva will start at right-back. Javier Hernández is likely to keep his place along side Wayne Rooney in attack in what will be Dimitar Berbatov’s last game for the club. Michael Owen, also out of contract this summer, is unlikely to make the match day squad.
Whatever the selection for Sunday’s match Ferguson faces the challenge of raising his team’s spirits after the flat performance against Swansea last weekend. United beat the Welsh side 2-0 at Old Trafford having already seen City dispatch Newcastle in the north east. Indeed, if the mood in United’s camp has been downcast this week it will come as little surprise. But there is little point in self pity – after all Ferguson’s side has blown the eight point lead it held barely a month ago.
“At the beginning of the week, the team was really down,” said United captain Patrice Evra admitted.
“And we were really down before the game against Swansea last weekend because we expected a little miracle from Newcastle. But it didn’t happen. Now we just believe. We’re level on points going into the final day.
“Maybe people will say I’m crazy or that I’m only saying this because I’m a Manchester United player, but I still believe we can win this title. I know the destiny of the title is not in our hands, but we will just make sure we start the game well against Sunderland.
“It’s not an easy place to go but I think we will win in front of all their fans. We have no choice but to believe. If we want to keep believing in the miracle we have to beat Sunderland. If we score first, maybe the City fans in the stadium will start to be nervous. When you are nervous, you rush things and you don’t do the things you want to do. That’s why I still believe, but we must make sure we are ready against Sunderland.”
Meanwhile, Sunderland manager O’Neil has injury concerns of his own heading into the game. Former United players Wes Brown and Kieron Richardson miss the tie through injury, while Seb Larsson is also out. However, fit again Titus Bramble should start for the Black Cats.
Whatever O’Neil’s selection, United need to run out winners. The omens are good – the home side has little to play for, chasing neither a European place, nor threatened by relegation – and United’s four victories in the past five matches at the Stadium of Light bode well. Meanwhile, Sunderland has drawn five of the side’s last seven Premier League matches, and won only two in the last 12, while United has lost only twice in 17.
Pressure can tell though, with United folding under it in recent weeks, and City thriving much against the Blues’ typecast. But it’s the pressure that Evra and his United players hope brings out the worst in Mancini’s City side over at Eastlands Sunday afternoon.
The odds look slim, but as Evra concludes, all that is left now is belief.
Sunderland versus Manchester United, Premier League, Stadium of Light, 13 May 2012, 3pm.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Mignolet; Bardsley, Turner, Bramble, O’Shea; Cattermole, Gardner, Colback, McClean; Sessegnon, Ji Dong-Won. Subs from: Westwood, Kilgallon, Bridge, Meyler, Elmohamady, Campbell, Bendtner.
United: (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Jones, Evra; Valencia, Scholes, Carrick, Young; Rooney; Hernández. Subs from: Amos, Lindegaard, Fabio, Fryers, Cleverley, Giggs, Park, Nani, Berbatov, Owen.
- Swansea worked the United midfield hard last weekend with Michael Carrick covering the most distance individually from either team at 7.39 miles;
- Compared against other Premier League strikers Wayne Rooney is ranked fifth for distance covered this season at 191.7 miles in total this season. Fulham’s Clint Dempsey has covered the most ground of any striker;
- Rooney is ranked second overall in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index having scored 26 league goals this season – he is the highest scoring Englishman this season, four behind Robin van Persie;
- Rooney has picked up just the one yellow card this season;
- Patrice Evra is the highest ranked player in the Index to have not scored a goal this season. The United captain has however completed 73.2 per cent of all the tackles he attempted;
- Lee Cattermole has been one of Sunderland’s hardest players to beat this season, having completed 68.6 per cent of all tackles attempted – he has won 72 tackles this season;
- Cattermole’s best game this season came against West Bromwich Albion on the 1 October 2011 – when the midfielder attempted 22 tackles, completing 16 at 72.27 per cent won;
- Ahmed Elmohamady is the only Egyptian player in the Premier League this season and has managed just three shots on target, scoring one goal in the process.
Referee: Howard Webb (Rotherham)
Assistants: P Kirkup, M Mullarkey
Fourth Official: L Probert