United face Sunderland on boxing day in a game that can no longer be taken for granted as an easy fixture. Sunderland currently lying in sixth place in the Premier League have already taken two points off United at the Stadium of Light being one of only two teams in the EPL to prevent the Reds from scoring- the other being the bitters of course.
Steve Bruce has made some inspired signings -both permanent and on loan and must be commended for getting the best out of players some may have even doubted were Premier League quality.
Take Titus Bramble for example, many scoffed when the former United skipper signed the defender for a mere one million pounds- some harsh critics labelling it one million too much, but Bramble has been in good form playing his part in helping the Black Cats into the top six.
Bruce has also helped get the best out of Anton Ferdinand who’s career seemed to be heading on downward trajectory this time last year.
There’s also the two Mancunian loan signings of Nedum Onohua and Danny Welbeck who’ve somehow catapulted themselves into the England reckoning in a matter of weeks. Welbeck in particular has looked like one of the best strikers in the Premier League, while new signing Asomoah Gyan has slotted into the Sunderland side almost as easily.
The problem for Sunderland has been consistency- just take a look at their away record for proof -one win on the road- coming rather bizarrely at Stamford Bridge, while Wolves and West Brom have beaten them, as for Newcastle, well for the sake of decency lets not even mention it. Okay why not -they got trounced 5-1!
Sunderland may have only one win away from home but they’ve also grabbed useful points at White Hart Lane, Anfield, Craven Cottage and Ewood Park. It’s safe to say if you’re a betting man Sunderland away is not the first game you’d be looking to put on your accumulator.
Last season’s game saw the sides draw 2-2 as Darren Bent stunned United with a long range finish early on, while Berbatov equalised with a sublime overhead kick. Then Ben Foster did his best to put the final nail in his Old Trafford career by allowing Kenwyne Jones to beat him to what should have been a fairly routine punch-out.
United however rallied, aided by a Kieron Richardson sending off, and a wayward Evra shot found its way into the back of the Sunderland net via a wicked deflection off Anton Ferdinand- cue lots of camera shots of the on looking Rio trying to look sympathetic yet pleased.
So what can United expect from such an unpredictable team? The key to victory could well be decided by three head-to-head battles, although with a tricky away trip to Birmingham only two days after Sunderland’s visit, it’s difficult to predict just what team Sir Alex will go with.
Ones to watch /key battles
Darren Bent – With five goals in the last six games Danny Welbeck has been Sunderland’s most prolific player, however due to his status as a Manchester United player he won’t be lining up against the Reds so it will no doubt be left to Bent to spearhead the Mackem’s attack. Bent shouldn’t be too worried though as with 24 League goals last season and seven this season the occasional England striker is one of the Premier League;s most consistent scorers.
With Asomoah Gyan also banging in goals this season Rio and Vidic can expect a busy afternoon. Despite it being unlikely that Rio can play two games in four days, I’d be highly surprised if Sir Alex doesn’t pick his two best central defenders to cope with such a lethal Sunderland attack.
Jordan Henderson- With Lee Cattermole suspended- again- the pressure will be on Henderson to try and put his mark on the middle of the park. It’s been a stratospheric rise for the youngster going from almost unheard of, to England International and proposed United target in a matter of months. While he wont be winning any beauty contests, there’s no doubt that the 21 year-old may well be heading for greener pastures if he keeps up his impressive displays.
Henderson reminds me a little of Michael Carrick and while I don’t expect them to go head-to-head as such- I imagine either Fletcher or Anderson will be given the task of keeping Henderson quiet- I expect Carrick to give the young upstart a lesson in passing.
Craig Gordon- Unless you’re Amish – in which case how the hell are you reading this?- you can’t fail to have seen the greatest save in the history of Association Football which took place in the recent Sunderland game against Bolton. Gordon endured a difficult time when he first arrived in the North East not helped by a over-inflated £11 million price tag and a shoddy defence in front of him. Now though the £11 million Roy Keane spent on the Scottish stopper looks like a bargain. With Wayne Rooney searching for his first goal from open play since 1987, if Wazza is going to get on the score sheet he’s going to have to have his finishing boots on to beat Gordon. If Berbatov starts then he’s going to need a Blackburn-type performance to add to his eleven goals this season.
With two wins, two draws and a loss in their last five games, Sunderland are hardly in top form but as they shown at Stamford Bridge and in this fixture last season a below par performance by United could well be exploited.
United enter this fixture in good form having won three and drawn two of their last five EPL games, with all three wins coming at Old Trafford. With the in-form Ji Sung Park due to depart for the Aldi cup after the game, there’s no doubt he’ll not only start but will be eager to remind Sir Alex not to forget him while he’s away. Although Sunderland are looking good, this is a game that United should win- especially in the absence of Welbeck and Cattermole.