Stadium of Light, Sunderland
12:45 Hrs GMT, 30th March 2013
Two teams with contrasting form and fortunes clash on Saturday lunchtime when relegation threatened Sunderland host champions-elect Manchester United at the Stadium of Light. The Black Cats are plummeting sharply towards the relegation zone and it is needless to say that they could do with a positive result soon. The bad news for them is that on Saturday, they come up against a side branded as a ‘killing machine’ by Joe Hart for their ability to relentlessly churn out wins this season in the league. With a Premier League record point haul in sight, Manchester United would loathe coming back from Wearside with anything less than 3 points but a FA Cup quarterfinal replay with Chelsea within 48 hours of this game provides a fascinating subplot.
However, in order to capitalize on any lapse in concentration on United’s part, Sunderland would need to put up a much improved performance than what has been on display for the last two months. Martin O’Neil’s men are on a 7 match winless streak – the longest presently in the league – and such woeful run of form has left them with a relegation dogfight on their hands. Last time out, they had to rely on a dodgy penalty decision to draw against 10-men Norwich City. Now they face a daunting fortnight when after hosting United, they travel to Chelsea next weekend before the Tyne-Wear derby at St. James’ Park in the middle of the month. Things can get a lot worse for the Mackems, before they get better.
The visitors, on the other hand, are flying high in the league and have the title all but wrapped up. Any lingering hopes that Manchester City might have had to rekindle the title race was firmly put to bed by their defeat to Everton a fortnight ago and United’s subsequent victory against Reading. With United boasting of a 15 point lead, it is hard to see them lose their grip on the title even if they fail to win at the Stadium of Light. Hence, it would be no surprise to see Sir Alex Ferguson ring in the changes with the big game against Chelsea in mind.
Team News & Tactical Brief
The Black Cat’s survival hopes were dealt a massive blow this week with the news that two of their more influential players – Steven Fletcher and Lee Cattermole – have been ruled out for the season. Fletcher, who has been the club’s top-scorer this season, picked up a knock on the ankle while on international duty while the club captain Cattermole had to opt for surgery to remedy a problem in his knee which has kept him out for the last few games. Fletcher’s absence will be a big loss, especially as O’Neil’s options upfront are limited. Former United defender Wes Brown is a long term absentee.
The manager has generally deployed a 4-4-2 this season but such plans may get scuppered in light of the injury suffered to Fletcher. In case O’Neil does decide to stick with two upfront, Stephane Sessegnon is most likely to partner Danny Graham up top. Adam Johnson and Sebastian Larsson are likely to feature in the wide areas with David Vaughan and Alfred N’Diaye in the central midfield. John O’Shea, who has 393 appearances for United under his belt, will partner Titus Bramble in center of defense. Craig Gardner, the scorer of the penalty against Norwich, should start at right back while one of Jack Colback and Danny Rose will start at left back.
Probable Starting Lineup (4-4-2): Mignolet; Gardner, Bramble, O’Shea, Colback; Larsson, Vaughan, N’Diaye, Johnson; Sessegnon, Graham
Sir Alex’s prayers have seemingly been answered as none of the multiple United players who were away representing their national squads have picked up any serious injuries ahead of what is sure to be a pivotal Easter double header. Nani might still be out for the visitors but it will be interesting to see whether Phil Jones has recovered enough to be considered for the trip. The game probably comes too soon for veteran midfielder Paul Scholes while Darren Fletcher remains on the sidelines for rest of the season.
United’s team for the game is difficult to predict as Sir Alex’s thought process is bound to be influenced by the game at Stamford Bridge on Monday. The manager will want his best eleven fit and firing for what surely is the more important of the two games and will pick his team accordingly for the match at Wearside. David De Gea is expected to start between the sticks. Rafael’s exclusion from the latest Brazil squad means the right back had a good rest in the last couple of weeks and hence should feature in both the games. Jonny Evans will start at the back and partner one of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. There is a strong possibility that Sir Alex might plump for Alexander Büttner at left back and give Patrice Evra, who played ninety minutes against Spain in the midweek, a break. In the midfield, Ryan Giggs – another one who had a rest during the international matches – should start at left wing and Ashley Young on the opposite flanks. Michael Carrick, who has been virtually ever present during this league campaign, may be saved for Monday and in such a scenario it will be the pairing of Anderson and Tom Cleverley in the center of the park for United. Up front, expect Wayne Rooney to partner Danny Welbeck as Sir Alex would want to keep his top scorer Robin van Persie fresh for the FA Cup tie.
Probable Starting Lineup (4-4-2): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Büttner; Young, Anderson, Cleverley, Giggs; Welbeck, Rooney
- Manchester United have dropped only three points this season in the league against teams from the bottom half of the table.
- United have kept 5 consecutive clean sheets in the league since conceding to Southampton in January.
- Sunderland are yet to beat United at Stadium of Light in the league with their last victory coming in 1997 at Roker Park.
- Craig Gardner is joint top with Frank Lampard of Chelsea in number of successful penalty conversion in league this season (4).
Player To Watch Out For
The star striker has scored a goal in each of his last five starts for club and country. A form player, if ever there was one, Rooney has picked his game up at the business end of the season and crucially for Manchester United it has happened just when van Persie has hit a rut. Rooney bagged the solitary goal of the game last time United were at the Stadium of Light and the smart money would be on the man from Merseyside to continue his scoring streak against a beleaguered Black Cats side.
Sunderland 0-2 Manchester United
Even if Sir Alex rests a few of his key personnel, United should have enough firepower to overcome an abject Sunderland side.