Manchester United beat Sunderland at the Stadium of Light through Nani’s well taken first half goal, although Chelsea’s victory at Anfield means that the Londoners remain odds-on to take the Premier League title. At least Sir Alex Ferguson’s side did everything necessary in the North East, taking the title race will go to a climatic weekend.
Chelsea’s lunchtime victory – precipitated by the limpest of performances by Rafael Benitez’ side – ensured United began the search for Wearside victory in a deflated pre-match atmosphere.
If the Londoner’s victory on Merseyside pushed a fourth Premier League title in a row a little further away, then Ferguson’s side did little to suggest it has given up hope.
Indeed, United controlled proceedings and would surely have won more comfortably but for Dimitar Berbatov’s profligacy. Starting alongside Wayne Rooney, Berbatov missed three outstanding second-half chances to take the game away from Sunderland well before the Bulgarian departed with 20 minutes remaining.
Fast becoming United supporters’ chief scapegoat, the brilliant striker’s lack of goals when it really matters is hard to mask and an issue Ferguson will surely address in the summer.
Indeed, United was heavily indebted to Nani’s outstanding 28th strike to remain just a point behind Carlo Ancelotti’s title favourites with a match to play.
“All we can do is win our game next week,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.
“Obviously I wouldn’t say it’s a sealed result against Wigan by any shadow of a doubt. They’re a good team, they’ll have a go and you just never know. It’s a crazy game.
“Maybe we are clutching at straws a little bit. It is important for us to win in front of our home fans and play the right way.
“It would be an incredible achievement for us. At the least we have stretched it (the title race) and kept the nerves going.”
United began brightly with Rooney’s shot blocked by Craig Gordon in the Sunderland net and Ryan Gigg’s follow-up deflected wide by former Red Phil Bardsley as the visitors dominated possession against Steve Bruce’s side.
Giggs’ effortless 20-yard-strike clipped the corner of post and bar, before Steed Malbranque force a smart save from Edwin van der Sar at the other end as both side’s created opportunities to take the lead.
Sunderland hadn’t lost at home this year but the breakthrough came just shy of the half hour with Giggs, Berbatov, Rooney and Darren Fletcher combining for Nani to slam home a stunning goal. The Portuguese found the bottom corner of Gordon’s net with a curving drive, finished with the outside of his right boot.
If anything Ferguson’s side began the second period in more determined mood, with Berbatov missing from just inches away with the open net beckoning and then heading against Kieran Richardson’s shoulder when scoring was surely easier.
Finally Michael Turner kicked substitute Michael Carrick’s drive off the line as United’s sought the security of a second goal that never came.
If United’s wastefulness frustrated Ferguson, then he responded by ensuring the Reds did not concede at the other end. First Rio Ferdinand joined the action to sit in front of the back four and then Owen Hargreaves – absent for more than 18 months – saw less than a minutes’ worth of action.
“One-nil is not a healthy score away from home,” a relieved Ferguson added.
“It was perhaps due to careless finishing. It looked that way. There were a lot of great chances. But we got there, that is important.”
United face Stoke City at home on the final weekend, with Chelsea favourites to secure only the club’s fourth domestic title with a win against Wigan Athletic at Stamford Bridge.
In the end matchwinner Nani echoed the belief felt by United’s outstanding visiting support, whose repertoire of classic songs dominated the Sunday afternoon atmosphere.
“We have a chance to win the league and we will fight until the end,” Nani told MUTV.
“You never know what’s going to happen in football. We just have to wait and see and win our game.”
Indeed, history points to a final twist before the season is concluded. The Premier League has gone to the final day on five occasions; only once have the two leading protagonists both secured victory.
United can only hope Wigan secure any kind of result in London next Sunday.