The international break. A time where most fans lament the lack of club football, and on this occasion compounded by some relatively poor performances. Fans breathed a collective sigh of relief as club fixtures returned for the Easter weekend.
Manchester United headed the Premier League schedule with the lunchtime kick off away to Sunderland. Sir Alex Ferguson hoped his side would, temporarily at least, increase the gap at the top of the table, continuing their march towards a 20th league title. Sunderland on the other hand, faced with the very real danger of relegation heading into the last games of the season, would have been desperate for points.
With an FA Cup replay away to Chelsea due on Monday, some wondered how Sir Alex would line up his side, with games in such a short space of time. Would he save players for the replay, or would he refuse to take any risks with the League at stake?
The answer became clear as a strong side was named for the trip. In goal, saw David De Gea start with Chris Smalling and Nemanja Vidic in front of him. On the left was Buttner with Rafael Da Silva on the right. In midfield, Carrick and Anderson were paired up with Valencia and Young occupying the wings. Shinji Kagawa was positioned just behind Robin Van Persie up front.
The first half was a story of the visitors taking control of the game. The game started with a moment of nervousness as a poor kick from a back pass from De Gea allowed Sunderland a chance, only for Sessegnon to be found offside when played in. From there, United were relatively comfortable, dominating possession without creating many clear cut chances.
Ashley Young tested the goalkeeper with a curling effort, and Buttner threatened after being fed through by Anderson. With some good play, as well as some threat from Sunderland, United got the breakthrough they were looking for. Van Persie beat defenders on the left before getting a shot away and beating the keeper to the far corner of the net. Replays showed two deflections helped it in, in particular a significant knee from Bramble, marking it as an own goal to give the visitors a 0-1 lead.
Minutes later, Rafael was forced off with an injury, Evans replacing him, shifting Smalling to the right. Both sides looked to test the opposing keepers as half time approached, but the score line remained 0-1.
The second half saw Sunderland try to fight their way back into the game, requiring United to be alert at the back. At the hour mark there was a break in the play as De Gea went to punch away a corner, clashing heads with Vidic in the process. After some time down, he got back up and continued. With neither side able to make a breakthrough, the game was set for a tense finale. Anderson played a superb ball to meet a charging Buttner, but the final ball eluded Kagawa. Buttner then forced Mignolet into a good save with 10 minutes remaining.
Injury time arrived, with 6 minutes added on and the visitors looked to see the game out. In the dying moments of the game, Van Persie had a chance to double the lead on the break, forcing a good save from Mignolet as the final whistle blew to give United 3 points, and guaranteeing their lead at the summit remain 15 points.
With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) A strong squad named, with some key players rested
One thing that would be fair to say as the season draws ever closer to its conclusion, is that Sir Alex is not taking any chances. Despite an FA Cup game on Monday and a healthy lead in the league, he still named a strong side to give United the best chance of taking all 3 points. It is clear that he does not want to drop points unnecessarily and allow rivals back in when there are difficult games left to play.
With that in mind it was also reassuring to see some players rested and other members of the squad used. The likes of Anderson, Buttner and Smalling were awarded starts.
Rooney, Ferdinand and Giggs among others did not feature, and could possibly play instead on Monday. What can be taken is that at this point in the season, both competitions are being taken seriously, as one would expect and the need to balance squad rotation will play an important role at times like this.
2) Not a classic, but job done
At this point in the season, the objective is to collect maximal points to ensure the gap is maintained and attempt to win the league as soon as possible. Of course, in this position it looks extremely unlikely that United will relinquish their position at the top of the league, but as fans learned all too well last season, the league is not won no matter how advantageous the situation seems.
Although Saturday’s game was not a football classic, it was a solid performance from United, with a controlling first half, and a good show of resilience in the second half in the face of a rejuvenated Sunderland side and increased pressure.
Ultimately, slender score-line or not, it was always important to get a clean sheet and see the game out with a win.
3) Buttner’s most impressive showing?
The need to fully utilise the squad is evident. One of the players who has been limited in showings this season is Buttner. With Evra afforded a rest on this occasion it was another chance for the left back to impress. In previous showings, it would be fair to say he has shown his talent to be fairly raw, looking to get forward often and sometimes looking reckless with tackles.
His showing against Sunderland, however, was one of his more impressive since joining. He constantly looked threatening, charging down the left to join the attack and could have found himself on the scoresheet. It is unclear at this stage, whether or not Buttner is considered the long term successor to Evra. However, if he can be relied upon at this point in the season to deputise for the Frenchman, then his contributions will be welcomed.
4) A strong midfield showing
An aspect of United’s play that particularly impressed was that of the midfield. Both Carrick and Anderson were impressive as they sought to control the play in the middle of the park. Carrick contributed both defensively and in attack, passing effectively and getting forward with pace. He did not stop throughout and was, in my opinion, easily the man of the match. As mentioned, Anderson also impressed. He showed great vision and was creative as he attempted to upon up Sunderland’s defenses. One highlight was his long pass for Buttner that saw the defender run 40 yards to meet it, only for the move to get thwarted as he tried to play in Kagawa.
Ashley Young was the more threatening of the wingers on the left as well, making useful runs down his side and cause problems whenever given the chance.
5) Hernandez surely set to start?
With both Van Persie and Welbeck featuring on Saturday, one would assume Rooney will start, and logically, so should Hernandez. The Mexican has had a strong season, contributing goals both for club and country. Despite this, one might argue he has not started as much as he should, and has been deserving of more playing time.
It simply does not make sense to see Van Persie start again in such short space, given concerns that he has been used too often and is perhaps fading at this point in the season.
Speaking of the Dutchman, after a productive week for his national team, it was good to see him contribute effectively on Saturday, and although he would want to claim the goal as his, the two touches it took on it’s way to the net will likely mean it is ruled as an own goal. That said, as far as fans and players are concerned, they all count at this point.