Sir Alex Ferguson will celebrate 25 years in charge of Manchester United this weekend, and it is perhaps fitting that Sunderland arrives for the fixture. After all, the Wearsiders have developed something of an affinity with United in recent years. Manager Steve Bruce acquired John O’Shea and Wes Brown last summer, while Danny Wellbeck and Jonny Evans are both recent Black Cat loanees. Add Sunderland squad players Kieron Richardson, Phil Bardsley, and Fraizer Campbell into the mix, and there is more than a little co-dependency between the clubs.
Bruce was United’s captain when the Reds secured a first Premier League title in 1993, ending a 26-year wait to become English champions, but is yet to beat his mentor in 17 attempts as manager of Birmingham City, Wigan Athletic and Sunderland.
The return of so many former players ensures an outstanding atmospheric on what should be a party weekend.
“We’ve had so many ex-players at Sunderland over the last few years, it’s been quite interesting,” said Ferguson, who marks his 25th anniversary on Sunday.
“We had Jonny Evans up there, we had Danny Welbeck up there on loan, Phil Bardsley, Kieran Richardson and now Wes and John have joined Brucey. It’s quite a connection. And of course they’ll get a good reception at Old Trafford. In Wes Brown and John O’Shea, you couldn’t have asked for two more loyal players at United in my time. They were fantastic characters too.
“It was one of these difficult situations when you’re starting to make changes and bring in young players, like Chris Smalling last season and then Phil Jones this summer. The last thing you want to do is have players like Wes and John continually just sitting and watching the games. They’re better than that and they deserve to have good careers elsewhere.”
Yet, Ferguson will be without as many as seven players on Saturday, with United’s injury list growing ever longer this week. Tom Cleverley will not be risked, while Ashley Young’s sore toe is being rested until after the international break. Meanwhile, Rafael da Silva is not ready to make his first team return and Chris Smalling is out with a broken bone in his foot until December. Adding to the headache, Ryan Giggs has a hamstring problem and Michael Owen could be out until the new year with a thigh strain picked up in midweek.
Michael Carrick could be ready for the game having missed United’s last three matches but there is a fitness doubt concerning dysfunctional midfielder Anderson.
“Vidic will be back but maybe Anderson is the one player who picked up an injury last night,” added Ferguson.
“We’ll see what he’s like. He could be doubtful. There will be no returns for Young, Smalling or Cleverley though. Michael [Owen] injured his thigh when he made the run across the front post for the first goal. It’s a killer for him. He started the season well, he’s been training terrifically. His two performances in the League Cup have been great. He made the goal last night, no doubt about that. I hope he’s not out for too long. We’ve assessed him this morning, he’s had a scan but we don’t have any results from that yet.”
Injuries are not helping Ferguson’s search for greater fluency. The Reds scored 21 times in the in first five Premier League matches this season, but only six in the past five. Cleverley’s ankle injury disrupted United’s midfield at an inopportune time, especially with Carrick and Anderson so out of form over the past two months.
The Scot also has a tough decision to make in defence, with Vidic back after missing the Otelul Galati game in midweek. Ferguson will choose between Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans to partner the Serbian. While Evans has seemingly moved ahead of the 33-year-old Ferdinand, repeated mistakes in recent matches has placed the Northern Irishman under pressure. Indeed, much as Evans progressed in two separate loan spells with Sunderland, he took a step backwards last season.
Yet, despite oft-voiced criticism, Evans has started the majority of United’s matches this season, and could well do so against his former employers.
“Sunderland have had a bit of a slow start this season but I think Steve Bruce has bought a lot of new players and it’s taken some of them a while to gel,” said Evans.
“But they’ve had a draw and a win in their last two games so they’ll be coming here wanting to put in a big performance. Steve Bruce’s teams always seem to do well in the Premier League and he’s a good manager. I’ve got a lot of fond memories from my time at Sunderland but I’ll be looking to do a job on Saturday and get three points before the international break.”
Sunderland, meanwhile, will be without former United players O’Shea and Campbell through injury. David Vaughan could also miss out. Lee Cattermole may come back into the side, but ‘keeper Simon Mignolet is out for two months. Whatever the personnel, Sunderland, having won just once in the last 20 meetings with United, is unlikely to spoil Ferguson’s celebratory victory weekend. It’s a good job, losing to his former players is said to irritate the Scot more than anything else.
“Thankfully Pally [Pallister] got it more than me,” recalled Bruce of the infamous ‘hairdryer’.
“In the early days we knew it was coming because Archie [Knox] had a way of telling us when we were going up the tunnel at Old Trafford. He’d tap you on the shoulder and tell you to get ready, it’s coming. If you couldn’t stand up to that you were no use to him. If you couldn’t stand up to him and his demands, and many a player couldn’t, then you couldn’t play for Man U.”
Bruce certainly could, but he wouldn’t dare spoil the party. Would he?
Manchester United versus Sunderland, Premier League, Old Trafford, Saturday 5 November 2011, 3pm
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Jones, Evans, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Park, Fletcher, Nani; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Pogba, Ferdinand, Fryers, Carrick, Berbatov, Welbeck, Diouf.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Mignolet; Bardsley, Turner, Brown, Richardson; Larsson, Cattermole, Colback, Sessegnon; Wickham, Bendtner. Subs from: Carson, Laing, Elmohamady, Gardner, Meyler, Ji, McClean, Cook.
- Having conceded six goals to Manchester City in, United set out to secure a clean sheet at Everton last week, with Javier Hernández scoring the only goal of the game. The Mexican has scored four Premier League goals in 443 minutes of football this season, from just 11 attempts at goal, taking him to 51st place in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index.
- Wayne Rooney made the Ballon D’Or shortlist this week and remains top of the Index. Rooney covered more ground than any other player in the match against his old club, recording 12.6km during the game
- Sunderland came from behind twice to earn a 2-2 draw against Aston Villa at the weekend, with Sebastian Larsson providing the assist for Stephane Sessegnon’s late equaliser. Larsson is now ranked 12th in the Index having scored three goals and provided four assists, and has contributed 30 crosses.
Referee: Lee Mason (Bolton)
Assistant referees: J Collin, M McDonough