Title in sight
Chris Burton takes a look at Manchester United's victory over Sunderland, which saw them edge a step closer to the Premier League title.
Last Updated: 31/03/13 5:25pm
Manchester United probably had one hand on the title heading into the latest round of fixtures, and they can place another finger on the Premier League trophy following a 1-0 victory over Sunderland.
The Red Devils may not have been at their best at the Stadium of Light, but they never looked like slipping up against a side which continues to sweat on its top-flight status.
It is now seven wins in a row for United and six successive clean sheets, with Sir Alex Ferguson's side looking decent bets to smash through the current record haul of 95 points for a season.
Sunderland boss Martin O'Neill made four changes, although most were enforced as the injured Carlos Cuellar, David Vaughan and Steven Fletcher, as well as Sebastian Larsson, were replaced by Titus Bramble, Phil Bardsley, Alfred N'Diaye and James McClean.
Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand did not even make the bench as Manchester United shuffled their pack on Wearside. The pair were two of four men to make way from the side which beat Reading last time out with they, Ryan Giggs and Danny Welbeck being replaced by Shinji Kagawa, Rafael, Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia.
With Fletcher having been ruled out for the season, Sunderland find themselves short on attacking options. Stephane Sessegnon was moved back down the middle alongside Danny Graham, allowing O'Neill to name two out-and-out wingers in McClean and Adam Johnson. Sessegnon looked lively without really threatening, while Johnson leaves his wide post far too often and ends up wandering into areas where he cannot influence proceedings.
Manchester United also went with one main frontman and a deep-lying support act, with Kagawa deployed just behind Robin van Persie. The Red Devils looked to control the middle of the park through Carrick and Anderson, while looking for width from Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia. They too failed to make the most of their wide men, though, with much of the action taking place down central channels. United's goal did, however, come from Van Persie pulling wide to the left and firing over a cross-shot which Bramble turned past his own goalkeeper.
O'Neill waited 76 minutes before turning to his bench, with Connor Wickham introduced in place of Johnson. The England man was less than impressed at seeing his number held up, but he had endured a frustrating afternoon and Sunderland needed to throw on another striker. Wickham did fire in Sunderland's only shot on target, but it was a tame effort in the 90th minute. Sebastian Larsson and Jack Colback were also introduced, in place of Phil Bardsley and Danny Rose respectively, but neither was able to make much of an impression.
Ferguson was forced into making the first change of the afternoon with just 33 minutes on the clock. Rafael was able to make his way from the field without any obvious sign of an injury, but he had clearly picked up a knock and was replaced by Jonny Evans. The Northern Irishmen slotted in comfortably at the heart of United's back four, putting in some telling tackles in the closing stages. Kagawa and Anderson made way for Welbeck and Tom Cleverley as the clock ran down and they helped to see the Red Devils over the line, holding the ball up well late on.
Kevin Friend did not have too many big decisions to make, but he did hand out four yellow cards. N'Diaye picked up the first of those for a sliding challenge on Valencia which saw him catch the United winger's ankle. John O'Shea was also cautioned for a clumsy challenge and Bardsley had no complaints about going into the book for a late lunge on Alexander Butter. For United, Van Persie saw yellow after aiming a high boot at Craig Gardner. Sunderland were less than impressed with the challenge, but replays showed that the Dutchman made no contact with the Black Cats midfielder, despite his theatrics.
Johnson admitted in the week that he could have offered more during his debut campaign at Sunderland, and he was unable to raise his game on Saturday. He is a player blessed with match-winning ability, but he has struggled to showcase that on a consistent basis this season. He was able to send over the odd dangerous delivery against United, but too often his final ball let him down or he found himself in a position where he was unable to pose any kind of threat.
Van Persie will tell anyone willing to listen that the match-winning goal should be added to his tally, but he is unlikely to be given it. His effort, after working a yard of space past Bardsley, was sailing well wide before it took a big deflection off Bramble's knee. The United striker has now gone eight games without a goal at club level, but he was among the scorers for Holland during the recent international break and will feel that his 20th Premier League effort of the season is not too far away.
The outlook appears bleak for Sunderland, with there little to suggest that they are capable of surging to safety. O'Neill's men were much improved during the second half against United, but they remain toothless in the final third and need Graham to rediscover form and confidence if they are to counter the loss of Fletcher. Worryingly for the Black Cats, they travel to Chelsea next time out before taking in a Tyne-Wear derby against Newcastle at St James' Park. Things are not going to get any easier and fixtures against Aston Villa, Southampton and Stoke are likely to define Sunderland's season.
The fact that Manchester United could afford to rest Rooney and Ferdinand offers an indication as to how comfortable they are in the league right now. With the title all but wrapped up, Ferguson finds himself in the enviable position of being able to rotate his squad and keep key men fresh for crucial fixtures. Monday's FA Cup quarter-final replay with Chelsea falls into that category and while the Blues endured a weekend to forget, United will head to Stamford Bridge in buoyant mood and ready to unleash their big hitters in an ongoing quest to secure another league and cup double.