Manchester United will host Sunderland this weekend looking to bounce back from what many Devils’ supporters consider an undeserved victory against Swansea at the Liberty Stadium last weekend. A victory on Saturday is all the more important in light of the need to maintain a position in the top 4 of the Premier League as we now enter the business end of the league with a dozen or so matches remaining. The next 3 months will not only decide the league champion, the race having been held fairly wide open by reigning champions, Manchester City, as well as the qualification for next year’s Champions League. Having already sat out Europe’s premier football competition this season, the English giants can ill-afford to miss another season as it could have massive repercussions not only financially but also on their ability to attract good players and sponsorship deals.
Team news, Tactics and Lineup
Louis van Gaal is still struggling to figure out his starting XI and the formation they should be playing in. Injuries have not helped him and his favourite striker Robin van Persie picking up a niggle towards the end of the Swansea game just makes matters worse. Or does it? In fact, it seems like the voodoo cast by a large section of the club’s fans seems to have worked and they might just get their wish of seeing Wayne Rooney play as lone striker. James Wilson is also nursing an injury and would be unavailable for the Sunderland game while the Radamel Falcao experiment seems for all intents and purposes to have failed. It’s not that the lad doesn’t have the potential but a serious knee injury and his continuous flirtations with fitness seem to have taken their toll and he just simply isn’t the same striker who struck fear in the hearts of oppositions while playing for Monaco till about a year ago.
The news that Rooney may start as lone striker should also bring a smile on another of United’s star attackers, Juan Mata who could get a look in at his favoured No. 10 spot. This might also be a great chance to bring back Ashley Young to the starting lineup. The English international reinvented himself this season and was in a purple vein of form before having to take an enforced break owing to injury. Michael Carrick is planning his return to training but it is still too early for him to play competitive football much less start a game. Daley Blind has done well in the role of the reverse sweeper as a defensive foil and should be expected to continue in this role. Herrera can also be used in this situation to drop back and shore up the defense when Sunderland mount a counter attack.
In defense, while LvG seems to be a bit partial to pairing Phil Jones with Marcos Rojo, the Englishman has been off the boil for a while now and might just lose his starting spot to compatriot, Chris Smalling. A fit Luke Shaw is always the automatic choice for left back while on the right, Antonio Valencia may get the nod as he provides a good attacking option on the wing on the overlap. LvG tried playing Paddy McNair on the right but hooked the youngster at half time against Swansea as he struggled to come to grips with the game.
The most glaring difference between United teams of yore and this one is the lack of speed in build up and attack. The above formation allows United to use the best available resources to inject some pace and guile into the attack. Louis van Gaal has set up his team to play a passing game but the English game is not conducive to a high tempo passing game since the players especially the ones lower down the rungs are more physical and tend to use physical force to break up play. Its usually speed that catches defenses on the wrong foot.
Predicted XI (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Shaw, Rojo, Smalling, Valencia; Blind, Herrera; Young, Mata, di Maria; Rooney
If ever there was a giant killer in the EPL, it has to be Sunderland. The Black Cats have made a habit of flirting with the relegation zone till the very end of the season before finishing the season off with a flourish, claiming the high value heads of top clubs like Chelsea and Manchester United en route to ensuring their continued stay in the Premier League. Gus Poyet’s men are no different and they are now in their favourite part of the season. Sunderland are just clear off the relegation drop zone and they are capable of surprising Manchester United, thus giving the hosts reason enough to be wary. The memory of Sunderland’s surprise 1-0 win at the same fixture last season should be fresh in the minds of both teams.
Poyet will miss the services of Emanuele Giacherrini, who seems likely to miss the rest of the season following another ankle surgery this week. Billy Jones, Jack Rodwell and Will Buckly will also miss the trip to Manchester.
Sunderland are somewhat draw specialists of this season, having shared points in 13 of their 26 games so far. If they hope to reprise this, they would need their back 4 to be on full alert to keep away United’s plethora of attacking talent. Vergini may be expected to lead the back line assisted by old United boy, John O’Shea. Lee Cattermole has been in tremendous form for the Black Cats and will get to reprise his role sitting in front of the defensive line as a deep playmaker. Ahead of him, Sebastian Larsson’s starting spot is safe. The Swedish international’s spectacular work rate and skill while on the ball make him one of the first names on the team sheet when fit. Adam Johnson is another player who has seen a resurgence in form and is one player Sunderland fans will hope finds the back of the net at Old Trafford. The ex Manchester City man possesses a mean cross as well as the ability to run directly at defenses while dribbling his way out of trouble. United’s defense would have surely worked out a plan to prevent Johnson from getting onto the wrong side of the defensive four. Jermain Defoe will start as the lone striker in front of a four man midfield.
Predicted XI (4-1-4-1): Pantilimon; van Aanholt, O’Shea, Vergini, Jones; Cattermole; Wickham, Larsson, Gomez, Johnson; Defoe
Key Match facts:
- The Black Cats have drawn more matches (13) than any team in Premier League history after 26 games
- United have lost only one game and won 10 while playing Sunderland at home. The 1-0 defeat came last year
- United have lost only two games of the 13 they have played so far at home in the Premier League this season
Manchester United 2 Sunderland 0
United would be smarting from the defeat handed out to them at Liberty Stadium. More importantly, Arsenal are ahead of United while Southampton, Liverpool and Spurs are within striking distance thanks to the profligacy of the Red Devils. With only 12 games remaining in the season, United need to pick full points at least from home games to cushion points dropped away from home as well as maintain their place in the league table with respect to European qualification. United still need to play some tough games on the road and things are going to get very complicated for the clubs placed from 3rd to 7th in the league table.
Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
The United skipper has played multiple positions throughout this season and his work rate has never flagged. However, he doesn’t have goals to show for it, having scored only 8 so far in the Premier League, 3 fewer than the 11 goals he scored for United in the league in 2004-05 and 2010-11, two of his worst years in terms of goal scoring. Rooney last scored in the Premier League in the Boxing Day game against Newcastle netting the ball twice but has been quite ever since, only scoring a late third goal against Preston in the FA Cup tie. The English captain is due a big one and has been denied so far largely due to being played deeper to accommodate others ahead of him. In the absence of van Persie and Wilson, however, the onus of scoring will lie squarely on his shoulders and for his and his club’s sake, he must deliver.