Defeat at the Liberty Stadium last weekend was just Manchester United’s second in 20 league and cup matches; a data point to prove that glib stats offer very little insight. It was, after all, also the second reverse that Louis van Gaal’s side had suffered in six games, during a period in which the Reds style has been roundly criticised. For a man that arrived at Old Trafford with a genuine sense of aura, Van Gaal is now very much under pressure.
Pressure is building because United’s path to Champions League football next season is far from clear. United remains in a five-way fight for just two spots at Europe’s top-table, with Arsenal and Liverpool in, arguably, better form than the Dutchman’s side. Southampton’s resilience and Tottenham Hotspur’s progression under Mauricio Pochettino look likely to remain a factor with just 12 games to go.
By contrast Van Gaal’s side has seemingly made little progress this season – even when a rash of early-campaign injuries cleared up after the Christmas period. In recent matches United has been reduced to a desperate long ball game, aimed at using Marouane Fellaini’s physical prowess. It is an agricultural approach not seen at Old Trafford since Dave Sexton’s disastrous reign in the 1970s.
Timely, perhaps, that Sunderland arrives in the midst of a run of form that includes just one victory from nine league games. Gus Poyet’s side is three points above the relegation zone. United, meanwhile, remains in a dog-fight for European qualification. The club’s – and perhaps even Van Gaal’s – future will be significantly damaged should Sunderland repeat last season’s 1-0 victory at Old Trafford on Saturday.
Van Gaal will be without Robin van Persie for the Mackems‘ visit. The the much-maligned Dutchman out for around a month with an ankle injury suffered against Swansea City last weekend. However, midfielder Michael Carrick is back in training after a calf problem. The Englishman’s lack of match fitness means a place on the bench is most likely, with Wayne Rooney again deployed in midfield.
In Van Persie’s absence Radamel Falcao could earn a recall, with pacy youngster James Wilson also available, not that United’s coach believes the new partnership will bare immediate fruit.
“It is a process between players. When Falcao is used to playing with van Persie then, when he plays with Wilson, he starts another process. That’s why I started with Falcao and van Persie,” said the veteran coach on Friday.
“Now maybe is the time to start a process between Falcao and Wilson. They haven’t played so much together, I believe once or twice. You can see that Wilson is also left-footed like van Persie and Falcao is right-footed. I have used Rooney as the right-footed striker and Wilson as a left-footed striker, that is why I kept these four players at the start of the season.”
Meanwhile, Poyet is without Emanuele Giaccherini, who underwent ankle surgery this week. The Italian winger is unlikely to play again this season, while Billy Jones and Jack Rodwell remain on the sidelines. New signing Jermain Defoe is fit to continue his partnership with Conor Wickham up front in a 4-4-2 system that Poyet has adopted in recent matches.
Despite Sunderland’s poor form this season Poyet remains upbeat – not least because of the Mackems’ victory at Old Trafford last year.
“Manchester United have to come back and they know us well from what happened last year, so they know they will face a team who could find Old Trafford a nice place to play football,” said the Sunderland manager.
“It is going to be competitive and we need to be spot on defensively because they have quality players. If everyone is fit they have an incredible team.”
Van Gaal, meanwhile, must turn that “incredible team” into points ahead of a daunting March and April fixture schedule. United must play Arsenal, twice, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Chelsea before the campaign ends. It leaves the Dutchman with little margin for error, especially against teams in Sunderland’s lowly position.
Yet, the Reds can also boast the second best home record in the Premier League, including a record of 10 victories in the past 12 Premier League games at Old Trafford. Continuation depends in no small part on United finding a route to goal – one that has proven difficult for United’s strikers this season.
“It is true because I cannot deny it,” said Van Gaal of his forwards profligacy this season. “Robin van Persie cannot deny it, Falcao cannot deny it and Rooney is not playing there much any more. We cannot deny that, at this moment, we don’t have a striker who scores 20 goals in the season.”
Just one will probably do on Saturday.
United (4-1-3-2): De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Blind; Fellaini, Rooney, Di Maria; Wilson, Falcao
Sunderland (4-4-2): Pantilimon; Vergini, O’Shea, Brown, Reveillere; Alvarez, Cattermole, Larsson, Johnson; Wickham, Defoe
United: Valdes, Evans, Rafael, McNair, James, Smalling, Blackett, Januzaj, Young, Herrera, Pereira
Sunderland: Mannone, Coates, Van Aanholt, Bridcutt, Buckley, Gomez, Fletcher, Graham
United 62 – Draw 37 – Sunderland 41
Referee: Roger East
Assistants: G Beswick, R West
Fourth Official: M Atkinson
United 3-1 Sunderland
£1 bet club
James Wilson to score twice @ 6/1
Running total: £1.50 up!