Manchester United arrive in Sunderland with renewed confidence after the victory over Valencia in midweek. Following three draws on the road Sir Alex Ferguson’s side finally recorded an away win in the toughest fixture outside Old Trafford so far this season. The challenge now, is to repeat the feat domestically.
However, Ferguson will again be without Wayne Rooney for the trip to the Stadium of Light, with the striker likely to be rested by United. Although Ferguson has now reneged on his earlier claim that Rooney will be out of action for three weeks, the former Evertonian seems certain to miss United’s trip to the North East with a sore ankle.
Indeed, Ferguson claims that Rooney is desperate to play but is being held back by the Scot for fear of causing more damage. It’s a policy in stark contrast to that deployed in March, when the Scot rushed Rooney into action against Bayern Munich in the Champions League to disastrous results.
“Wayne has been playing for a few weeks now with his niggling ankle injury,” said Ferguson.
“He has kept it to himself and he is not doing himself justice. So it comes to a point where he suffers and it meant we didn’t take him to Valencia.
“He trained yesterday and, Wayne being Wayne, he wants to play of course. But I’ve got to take the view that this injury has been niggling for quite a while and he has kept on playing with it. Now we have identified that, we have to be dead sure we are doing the right thing for him.
“He thinks he’s fit because he always thinks he’s fit and that’s the problem with the lad. He’s always too willing to play even with injuries.”
Ferguson must also decide who to play in central midfield and defence with Anderson, Michael Carrick and Rio Ferdinand all featuring in the match against Valencia on Wednesday. While the United manager may prefer to pick the trio for the trip north, it is more likely that the Scot will rotate his squad.
Ferdinand’s involvement depends on the defender’s physical reaction, with the smart money on an extra rest for the England captain against the Wearsiders. Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Wes Brown remain on standby, with Ferguson not willing to risk Ferdinand’s long-term fitness.
Anderson and Carrick, meanwhile, have completed just four matches between them this season. Darron Gibson may come into the side as an alternative, although Paul Scholes has a minor calf strain and may not feature. Meanwhile, Park Ji-Sung’s disappointing performances this season are unlikely to precipitate a change, with Ryan Giggs still a fortnight away from a return.
There is an outside chance that Owen Hargreaves will make the bench.
Ferguson must also decide whether to retain the 4-2-3-1 system that looked significantly more secure on Wednesday, or reintroduce a second striker to United’s attack. With Javier Hernández, Federico Macheda and Michael Owen each pushing for a start the dilemma is no less easy after the victory over Valencia. The Mexican’s superb finish at the Mestalla will not have gone unnoticed.
The Scot surely must not countenance a fourth draw in the Premier League this season after United failed to capitalise on Chelsea’s loss at Manchester City last week. Ferdinand says that it is essential United does not let Chelsea extend the lead, with the Londoners due to face Arsenal at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
“The seasons we have lost the league have been when we’ve given teams a head-start,” said the 31-year-old defender.
“But as long as we kick on now and get a good run of victories we will be OK.
“When you drop points against anyone, you put yourself under pressure but now the gap is three again, which I wouldn’t say is a massive difference at this stage of the season.”
Meanwhile, former United defender Steve Bruce faces the realistic prospect of a fifth United victory in a row at the Stadium of Light. Indeed, United has lost only once at the Black Cat’s new home since its opening in 1999 – 2-1 in the Carling Cup fourth round, in November 2000 – and won six of the last seven.
The 49-year-old manager will be without former United players Frazier Campbell and Kieren Richardson through injury, while Danny Welbeck is ineligible to play against his parent club. Anton Ferdinand and John Mensah are also rated doubtful for United’s visit.
Sunderland – 442 – Mignolet, Bardsley, Onuoha, Bramble, Turner; Cattermole, Malbranque, Henderson, Al-Muhammadi; Bent, Gyan. Subs from: Gordon, Da Silva, Zenden, Riveros, Reid, Colback, Angeleri, Riveros.
Van der Sar, Kuszczak, Amos, Smalling, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, O’Shea, Evans, Rafael, Brown, Anderson, Bébé, Nani, Carrick, Gibson, Fletcher, Park, Hernández, Berbatov, Macheda, Owen, Obertan.
Referee: Chris Foy
Assistant referees: Andy Garratt & Andy Madley
Fourth official: Paul Tierney
Sunderland – DDDWLD
United – DDWWDW