Sir Alex Ferguson’s side escaped with a draw at Old Trafford after another late, late goal but as good as United has been in recent weeks, the team were below-par on Saturday tea-time. In the end Fergie’s men, indebted to a massive slice of luck for salvaging something from an unmittigatingly poor performance, were grateful to take a point. In fact, so off-key was United’s passing that a Ferguson team can rarely have given away the ball so often.
Sunderland meanwhile, fresh from a 5-2 drubbing of Wolverhampton Wanderers last weekend, was on course for an unlikely victory until Anton Ferdinand’s injury-time own goal.
The match started poorly for the Champions – looking for an eighth victory in a row – with Darren Bent swivelling on the edge of United’s area and rifling in a low shot that beat Foster to his right. Much like his new team, Bent has been resurgent under former United stalwart Steve Bruce’s stewardship. Perhaps sensing United was there for the taking, Ferguson having made seven changes from the team that beat Wolfsburg in midweek, Bruce’s team was bright and full value for its early goal. The strike should have galvanised the home side into waking from its slumber, instead Bruce’s team continued to force the issue.
Indeed, Sunderland was dominant with United failing to register an effort on target until the second period. With Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher restored to the side following their demotion in midweek, United may have expected to monopolise possession as is the way at Old Trafford. Not so. In Andy Reid Sunderland held the dominating force in the middle of the park, with able deputies in Lee Cattermole and Steed Malbranque.
Last week’s man-of-the-match Scholes misplaced just four passes in more than 80. It’s doubtful whether four reached their target against Sunderland and he was rightly hauled off at half-time.
But six minutes into the second period, with Scholes sacrificed for the Brazilian youngster Anderson, United gained a lifeline with Dimitar Berbatov spectacularly garnering the home side’s equaliser. The Bulgarian, outstanding again in midweek, fashioned a picture-perfect overhead to the bring Ferguson’s team level. Berbatov has been excellent this season and he stood head and shoulders above his team-mates on Saturday.
Indeed, the Bulgarian deserves more recognition from a media pool that refuses to understand him. The overhead kick was spectacular – great stuff on an awful day for the home side – but his all-round performance was worthy of better headlines.
Yet the goal only served to underline Sunderland’s superior play, with United failing to push on for the expected victory. Bruce’s character and determination, rubbing off on his new charges, meant that a meek surrender was never on the cards. The North East’s only Premier League side led just seven minutes later, with Foster’s half-hearted attempt to challenge Kenwyne Jones for a high ball so spectacularly inept that all debate about the Englishman’s claims on Edwin van der Sar’s shirt must now be extinguished.
But while Ferguson is in charge at Old Trafford, United will continue to gamble even in the face of overwhelming odds. Old Trafford alumni Kieren Richardson, having underlined the immaturity that led to his departure, saw red for a second bookable offence with five minutes remaining. It was the only stimuli United needed and, throwing men forward with abandon, the home side got the equaliser its play barely deserved – Evra’s shot cannoning in off the younger Ferdinand’s shins and into the net.
Deploying Danny Welbeck on the left-wing was odd and Ferguson nearly paid for resting some of the side’s leading players. The manager admitted as such and was happy that his team came out of the game with a point.
“I was pleased to get something out of the game considering how badly we played,” said Ferguson.
“There wasn’t much creativity. Too many players were running with the ball, the passing wasn’t good and at our level, when the opponents are motivated, you make life very difficult for yourself.
“We didn’t create a lot of chances and the quality of our play in the last third wasn’t good enough. We have to sum it up as an off day. We get them, we don’t enjoy them, but we do get them.”
But in the end two points dropped at home, adding to those lost at Turf Moor, could prove costly come the end of the season.