Sunderland 0-0 Manchester United
Another away game, another two points dropped. Manchester United were held to a 0-0 score at Sunderland at the Stadium of Light – Sunderland’s form this season means that the result is far from a disgrace, but the manner in which the game played out (with United arguably lucky to escape with even a point) has presented a new headache as further ground is likely to be surrendered at the top to champions Chelsea, even if for now the gap has been closed by the point gained.
Sir Alex Ferguson sprung a few surprises in his line up (as predicted in our preview) with Dimitar Berbatov and Patrice Evra both starting from the bench, and a starting front pair of Michael Owen and Federico Macheda. An unconventional line-up was accompanied by an unconventional precursor to the game when a burst pipe flooded the United dressing room, delaying kick off by 20 minutes. And in fairness, for the first 30 minutes, it barely looked like the visitors had chosen to come out at all as the Black Cats dominated. All chances of any note in the first half came from Sunderland as they looked to take full advantage of an unfamiliar United line up.
An early succession of corners for the hosts failed to produce anything tangible; Jordan Henderson’s speculative 13th minute effort didn’t really trouble van der Sar, but the veteran stopper was called into action when Steed Malbranque – in supreme schemer mode – latched on to Lee Cattermole’s incisive through ball, beat Nemanja Vidic but couldn’t find a way past van der Sar, who smothered the shot well.
Ex-Chelsea and Liverpool winger Zenden hit the post from over 20 yards in the 37h minute, while United’s only effort worth noting was a free kick won well by Anderson and shot wide by Nani in the 39th. On the run of play, United were fortunate for parity. With patchy away form this season, improvement was crucial, though some might say it was inevitable as it couldn’t get any worse for the visitors.
Michael Owen’s only contribution in the first half was inadvertently help clear a United attack when he was well placed to strike on goal; it was no surprise to see him replaced at the break by Berbatov. The Bulgarian re-directed a wayward Scholes shot into the net in the 48th minute but was rightly flagged offside.
The Red Devils did at least make a notable improvement from their first half offering but only to the extent of nullifying the threat of their hosts; that said, Sunderland did have their chances, with a free kick just after the hour being subjected to the pinball treatment around the United box before going well over, and Malbranque and Bent both having chances.
Sir Alex replaced Macheda with Chicharito and gave Bebe his league debut in place of Anderson, but both summer signings failed to make an impression. Nani, as so often this season, was hit and miss. The winger impressed so much at the back end of last season but seems to have let that go to his head already; regardless of his frustratingly inadequate delivery, he was still United’s most potent attacking threat. His 30 yard bolt out of the blue effort was well saved by Mignolet and was the closest United came to a goal; that a speculative attempt such as that was the best opening said everything about the performance.
Berbatov and Chicharito provided each other with chances, but neither tested Mignolet. Sunderland introduced their record signing, Asamoah Gyan, and the unpredictable forward lashed a spectacular overhead kick at goal in the 84th minute, but it was easy for van der Sar.
Thoughts began to turn to this season’s trends; United yet to win or even keep a clean sheet away from home this season, while Sunderland have carved out an impressive record of taking points from the so-called bigger names and often doing so with late goals. Shipping them in the final stages has also been a nasty habit for United, but they managed to keep a clean sheet with relative ease. That was the good news (and the relative comfort with which it was achieved after soaking up that first half pressure); the bad news being the toothless display up front by last seasons runners up. A two point lead for Chelsea at the top is likely to extend to 5 by the end of this weekends fixtures, even if their game against Arsenal is far from a foregone conclusion.
Even if Arsenal do United (and themselves) a favour by grabbing a win there, United’s inability to turn one point into 3 on the road means they will look back with even more frustration at an eight day period which has seen Chelsea throw down an invitation back into the title race, only for United to fluff their lines.
Ratings : van der Sar 7, *Rafael 7, Ferdinand 7, Vidic 7, O’Shea 7, Nani 6, Fletcher 5, Scholes 6, Anderson 6 (Bebe), Owen 5 (Berbatov 6), Macheda 5 (Chicharito 6)