Old Trafford, Manchester
December 26, 2010; 8:30 P.M. IST – Live on ESPN

The Red Devils are still unbeaten this season but are set to play only their 2nd league game in almost a month, since thrashing Blackburn at home. Despite fixtures against Blackpool and Chelsea being postponed, Sir Alex would be pleased about his side being top of the table with games in hand over their title rivals. The manager would be keen to take three points from this encounter and stretch the lead at the top especially with Chelsea due to visit Arsenal on Monday.

Stands alone on top

Sunderland, on the other hand, have been the so-called over achievers so far this season. The Black Cats are currently in sixth position in the league, only behind Tottenham on goal difference. Also, they have done exceedingly well against the top sides with victory at Stamford Bridge and draws against Arsenal and United at home and Liverpool and Tottenham away.

Team News and Tactical Brief

Manchester United

The packed fixture list over the festive period will certainly test the depth of Sir Alex’s squad. Although, the manager has dealt with these situations exceedingly well with his astute squad rotations, it would be interesting to see how he tackles it this time with all the talk of his second string players not being up to the mark. The injury to Paul Scholes and highly versatile John O’ Shea has not helped matters while Hargreaves and Valencia are still injured. However, the boss would be more than happy to welcome Vidic and Anderson, who were expected to miss the trip to Stamford Bridge due to a virus infection. They have joined Nani and Carrick who have also recovered from the same problem. The striking department is also strengthened by the return of Michael Owen from a hamstring injury.

Park would definitely be involved as it would be his last match before leaving to play for South Korea in the Asia Cup. Sir Alex is likely to return to a 4-4-2 formation, which means the return of league’s top scorer Berbatov to the starting line-up after missing out against Arsenal. Anderson and Carrick could start in midfield with Fletcher being saved for the game against Birmingham on Tuesday. Also, expect early substitutions from Sir Alex if his side is in the lead around the hour mark.

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Steve Bruce would be without Danny Welbeck who has been one of his most influential players so far this season. The England U-21 international is on loan from United and is ineligible to play against his parent club. Also, Bruce is having a sort of injury crisis with several players set to miss the game at Old Trafford. While Bramble, Turner, Campbell and Meyler are all out with knee injury, Carson, Reid and Mensah are also missing through different injuries. Lee Cattermole  is also ineligible to play after being suspended for picking up his fifth yellow card against Bolton.

Bruce has so far gone in with a attacking mind set in these games, playing two up-front in a 4-4-2 formation and has got fruitful results none more so than a 3-0 victory at the Bridge. He is expected to go in with the same formation with Gyan and Bent leading the attack. Malbranque is expected to take his place in midfield for the suspended Cattermole while Zenden and old United boy Richardson taking their places on the wings. Sunderland would be looking to keep a decent shape while defending, and to keep the ball and patiently build attacks when they have the ball.

Key Match Facts

1) Sunderland have not won at the Theatre of Dreams since 1968.

2) United have won 8 and drawn 1 of their 9 league games this season.

3) The Black Cats have kept most number of clean sheets (9) this season.

4) Steve Bruce has drawn 4 and lost 11 of his previous meetings against United as a manager.


Dimitar Berbatov (Manchester United)

Has a point to prove to his manager

The big Bulgarian would be keen to make an impression on Alex after being dropped against Arsenal despite scoring five in the previous game against Blackburn Rovers. Berbatov, who won the Bulgarian player of the year for a record seventh time this week, has been in scintillating form and is currently on top of the scoring charts with eleven goals to his credit. His deft touches and link-up play with Rooney could leave the Sunderland defence mesmerized.

TheHardTackle’s PREDICTION

Manchester United 2-0 Sunderland

Although Sunderland is the only team except Manchester City to stop United from scoring this season, they will find it hard to repeat the same feat at Old Trafford where the Red Devils seldom draw a blank. Sir Alex’s men would start the festive period on a high note with a comfortable win.