“93:20, 13 May 2012,” reads the banner now proudly displayed at Eastlands – the time and date marking Manchester City’s first Premier League title, secured deep into injury time against Queens Park Rangers last spring. Meanwhile, over at the Stadium of Light Sir Alex Ferguson’s players sank in disappointment as the news filtered through of City’s late triumph. In Sunderland, where United had won to no avail, a once proud home support stooped lower still and danced the ‘Poznan’ in mock celebration. Small club, small mentality as Ferguson once noted of another club.
Sunderland supporters’ joy last May adds a minor edge to an otherwise mundane match at Old Trafford this weekend – victory in which could stretch Manchester United’s lead at the head of the Premier League to nine points.
After all, this is a fixture that Ferguson’s side almost always wins, despite a rash of ex-Reds in the Sunderland squad in recent years and a steady stream of loanees. Little wonder Ferguson used his weekly press conference to chide Sunderland fans’ “disappointing reaction.”
No better tie, then, to ;rehabilitate Nemanja Vidić, with the Serbian defender set to return to first team action after three months on the sidelines. Vidić has suffered two serious knee injuries over the past year that have restricted the 30-year-old United captain to less than a dozen hugely rusty appearances. And with Jonny Evans suffering injury during United’s last-gasp victory over City last weekend, the Serbian’s return this weekend comes at an ideal moment.
“Having Vida back in the squad is a big, big one for us,” said Ferguson, who also confirmed that Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa is back in training.
“His experience, his ability to head the ball, his offensive qualities are well renowned now and he’s our captain. Whether I start him or not, that’s another issue. But it’s great to have him back.
“We hope we’ve given him the proper rehabilitation. Coming back from the last injury, we gave him a long rehabilitation and I thought it was a good one. But unfortunately he suffered another injury. In fact, in the last year and four months or so, I think he’s only played about 10 games. That’s not a lot of football for a man who’s 30, 31.”
Should Vidić start on the bench, Chris Smalling will come into the side – reward for an outstanding appearance as substitute against City last weekend. ;Meanwhile, goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard is available again after the Dane missed last week’s fixture to witness the birth of his son, and Ferguson will make a late call on Wayne Rooney with the striker struck down by illness this week.
Tom Cleverley, outstanding against City last weekend, may drop to the bench, with veterans Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs in contention.
Injuries and illness aside, the Scot will be keen for his side to build on ;an outstanding victory at Eastlands, with the attending boost in morale matched by the fall-out in the Blue quarter of Manchester. While Roberto Mancini claimed another moral victory, tensions now abound in the Eastlands dressing room.
Indeed, fixtures against Sunderland, Swansea City, Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion in December offer the Reds a realistic chance of reaching the New Year with a commanding Premier League lead – an outcome few would have predicted after United’s meek opening day defeat at Everton.
Meanwhile, Sunderland arrive at Old Trafford in wretched form, but having secured a desperately needed victory over Reading on Tuesday. Yet, the Mackems’ lowly Premier League position has placed experience manager Martin O’Neil under pressure to improve results and drag Sunderland out of a relegation fight.
It is a false position, claims Ferguson, who is never slow to offer support to those in the managers’ union.
“Martin O’Neill has won three titles with Celtic and taken them to the Uefa Cup final,” said Ferguson in support of the embattled Irishman.
“He’s been at Aston Villa, he’s been at Leicester City. He was asked a question last week which was absolutely ridiculous, about whether he still had self-belief. It was a silly question, an absolute insult because he is an outstanding manager.”
O’Neil could be without Adam Johnson and Danny Rose through injury, although key striker Steven Fletcher should be available. Former Red Wes Brown is on the sidelines with injury, but John O’Shea is likely to start in central defence. Another ex-United player Phil Bardsley is out with a long-term problem, as is hard-tackling midfielder Lee Cattermole.
Absences will do little to help O’Neil, with Sunderland’s executive management likely to be under pressure to remove the manager should the team suffer heavy defeat at Old Trafford, followed by a challenging Christmas programme.
And the visitors have little to cheer in history: not since 11 May 1968 have the Mackems beaten United at Old Trafford. Goals from Colin Suggett and George Mulhall handed United defeat and – with some prescience – City the title on the final day of the season.
There are no confirmed reports of the ‘Poznan’ making an appearance all those years ago.
Manchester United v Sunderland – Premier League, Old Trafford – Saturday 15 December 2012, 3pm
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Vidić, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Scholes; Young, Rooney, Welbeck; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Wootton, Smalling, Buttner, Fletcher, Jones, Cleverley, Powell, Valencia, Giggs, Hernandez.
Sunderland (4-5-1): Mignolet; Gardner, O’Shea, Cuellar, Kilgallon; Johnson, Larsson, Sessegnon, Colback, McClean; Fletcher. Subs from: ;Westwood, Bramble, Vaughan, Campbell, McFadden, Wickham, Saha, Ji
Referee: C Foy
Assistants: S Child, H Lennard
Fourth official: A Taylor
Head to Head
Last 10: United 8, Sunderland 0, Draw 2
Overall: United 58, Sunderland 39, Draw 36
- Michael Carrick has again excelled with the ball this season, but the midfielder’s ability is overshadowed by defensive lapses – only Rafael da Silva has conceded more fouls for the Reds this season, with Carrick being pulled up by the officials 15 times;
- Ashley Young’s form has been inconsistent this season, but there are few doubts about the players commitment last weekend, with the winger covering more ground – 6.71 miles – than any other player against City;
- Rafael’s development is continuing apace this season, especially in attacking areas – the defender has provided 17 crosses and four assists before the turn of the year;
- Robin van Persie continues to demonstrate value for money this season – the Dutchman is second in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index for attempts-to-goals ratio, with a place on the scoresheet once every 4.54 attempts this season;
- Rooney has been challenged by his manager to score more goals, although England’s talisman currently sits third in the Index with seven assists;
- Sunderland beat Reading 3-0 at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday, with goals from James McClean, Steven Fletcher and Stephane Sessegnon;
- McClean continues to excite the Stadium of Light – the Irishman has provided 35 crosses this season, and covered 76.44 miles;
- Striker Fletcher continues to prove a smart acquisition by O’Neill, scoring every 3.71 attempts on goal;
- Meanwhile, former City player Johnson has provided a squad-high four assists and 40 crosses;
- Sebastian Larsson was both Sunderland’s quickest player and hardest worker against Reading – the Swede was recorded at 19.86 mph and covered for a solid 6.69 miles in total.