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Abysmal, lacklustre but very very lucky – Manchester United salvaged an injury time draw against a Sunderland side that had completely dominated and outplayed them at Old Trafford.
A selection that excluded the injured Michael Owen and the rested Ryan Giggs was always likely to be struggling to find a plan B – no strikers on the bench, and an odd midfield that featured Welbeck out wide meant that it was plan A or bust for the Premier League Champions. On the first half evidence it was truly “bust”, as Sunderland’s energetic midfield thoroughly outran their opponents. The early exchanges were dominated by the visitors and on 7 minutes they were rewarded with a 20 yard strike from in-form Darren Bent.
The Black Cats sat back for a while, expecting a response that simply was not forthcoming from either the players or the subdued Old Trafford spectators. After an initial tentative period Sunderland began to realise that United did not have an answer and began to play with a freedom and cleverness rarely seen by visitors to this venue and rarely afforded by the hosts.
Without a shot of note in that first period the only chance United fashioned was a penalty appeal – the ball did appear to be handled quite clearly by Andy Reid and although the decision itself may have been clear a leveller would have been totally against the run of play.
The famed “Fergie hairdryer” would surely have been rampaging at half time and it seemed to have little impact – the Red Devils were hardly rampaging themselves. Anderson had been introduced for Paul Scholes after the United legend had picked up a booking, but it was hardly a surprise. When Nani’s inconsistent delivery is the actual highlight of a midfield you know United needed something extra.
An equaliser did arrive when O’Shea’s cross was sensationally, and acrobatically, volleyed in by Berbatov. Anonymous before, the Bulgarian suddenly began to look lively and sprightly.
Unfortunately for United Sunderland were not about to lay down and settle, and scored just 6 minutes later when Andy Reid chipped a ball into the box that seemed bread and butter for the United keeper Ben Foster. However Nemanja Vidic was found wanting in his marking of Kenwyne Jones and Foster was found wanting in his attempt to collect. Jones converted to restore the lead for Sunderland and Ben Foster was left to contemplate whether this was one mistake too many. There is no doubting his ability but whether he can actually cut it on the very top level now seems very doubtful.
This is a question being asked of some of United’s younger outfield players and with no Giggs, Owen or even Macheda to turn to it was Antonio Valencia and the in-form Michael Carrick that came on for Welbeck and Fletcher. That Welbeck was favoured to start over Valencia wasn’t exactly encouraging but neither was the Ecuadorian’s display when he came on, though having said that Fergie’s last throw of the dice didn’t exactly seem to encourage the rest of the side.
Despite always staying brave with keeping 2 strikers on Sunderland appeared to try and protect their win with around ten minutes left and even this didn’t spark United into life. The Black Cats almost got a deserved third to kill the game when youngster Henderson absolutely destroyed Evra for pace and saw his excellent ball diverted away in the nick of time by Carrick with Jones loitering with intent. However with 5 minutes remaining former United player Keiran Richardson was given a second yellow for kicking the ball away and the change in shape finally shook a response from the home team.
The visiting staff and supporters waited with baited breath to see the consequences the time wasting of their keeper and Richardson’s crawl off the pitch had contributed to the added time – 4 minutes seemed a fair amount. In the third of those minutes fate struck a cruel blow for Sunderland as Evra’s hopeful swing of the boot seemed to send the ball wide until Anton Ferdinand stuck out a leg and diverted into the bottom corner to make it 2-2.
United, buoyed by this, then poured forward and bizarrely almost won the game with a flurry of corners. However it came to no avail and it was just a completely undeserved point rather than a criminal snatching of the whole three that United had stolen from the game. With Chelsea and Liverpool due to face off against each other this was a valuable chance to put some daylight between themselves and the chasing pack.
The only positive to take from the game was the resilience of the side though it’s hard to class this as a good thing when United didn’t even turn up for 85 minutes. Sir Alex may have publicly lamented the fitness of referee Alan Wiley and what he felt were two good penalty claims but privately he must consider his own decision to completely rest an in-form Giggs that the team seem to be reliant on.
Ratings : Foster 5, O’Shea 6, Evans 6, Vidic 5, Evra 6, Nani 6, Scholes 5 (Anderson 6), Fletcher 5 (Carrick), Welbeck 5 (Valencia), Rooney 6, *Berbatov 6.