Robin van Persie looks on as Jack Rodwell scores an equaliser at the beginning of the season
With only twelve games to go and with the race for a top four finish heating up, Manchester United are in desperate need of a win following the 2-1 defeat away at Swansea City last weekend. United are without Robin van Persie, who picked up an ankle injury in the defeat, as they take on Sunderland who saved themselves from relegation last season with a win at Old Trafford following the departure of David Moyes. The visitors last away victory came against arch rivals Newcastle United back on the 21st December.
Sunderland are three points off the drop zone and will no doubt be boosted by a double victory on the same ground last season – one in the League Cup and as mentioned previously, towards the back end of the season in the league. Radamel Falcao needs to start proving his worth if he is to seal a permanent move from Monaco, whilst Angel Di Maria will also be looking to prove doubters wrong after coming under heavy fire for his lacklustre performance last weekend.
We are joined by Michael Graham who blogs over at http://rokerreport.sbnation.com/. We discuss relegation, long ball United and who will finish top four. You can follow Michael and the lads on Twitter @RokerReport.
1) How would you sum up your season and will you avoid the drop?
This season has been quite bizarre really, as the reality has never really aligned with the feel of it.
I’m sitting here and I’m struggling to think of many memorable moments or, for that matter, any genuine excitement at all. In fact, this team has bored me to tears most of the time. However, the reality is we haven’t been in the bottom three all season, and that’s fairly unusually solid for us of late and a step forward from last year’s shambles.
2) How does Poyet compare with your previous three managers and is he the right man for the job?
I really like Poyet. Yes, his team has failed to entertain this season, and if you judge him on wins and not points, he isn’t performing either. That said, there are a lot of mitigating circumstances that are rarely referenced.
He lost some really good players last summer in Ki Sung-yueng, Fabio Borini and Marcos Alonso. He wanted to keep Phil Bardsley and Jack Colback too. For a club like Sunderland in the financial fair play era, it’s tough to replace that amount of quality when you haven’t received a penny for any of them. To actually progress as well is a big ask.
So I think this season was always going to be about laying some fresh foundations, which I’m confident he’s doing. Certainly, in terms of achievements, he somehow got the club safe from a hopeless position, delivered a cup final, and had utterly dominated the Tyne and Wear Derby. It stacks up very well against his predecessors.
3) What has been your highlight and lowlight of the season so far?
The highlight was the derby win at St James’ Park. We’ve been spoilt of late against Newcastle, but to win it in the last minute with such a good goal was pretty special.
The lowlight was the 8-0 battering against Southampton. Just one of those days where everything went wrong. It’s had a big bearing on our season too, I think. Poyet was scarred by it and we can probably trace the overly defensive football since to the trust that the players destroyed that day.
4) How big a loss is Emanuele Giaccherini for you? What does he bring to the team?
It’s tough to say because we don’t really know how much Poyet likes him yet. Giaccherini is unquestionably a quality player with some genuine pedigree, but he has struggled to command a regular first team spot here for one reason or another.
We probably have missed him though, mainly because he’s an attacking, creative option we can’t really replicate anywhere else in the squad.
5) You’ve had a few ex-Reds in your team over the years. Who has stood out for you and why? Also, who hasn’t impressed you that much.
John O’Shea has become the best of the lot, which he was probably always likely to. He hasn’t got the headlines, but he’s been Sunderland’s player of the season so far for me. He’s played every minute and captained the club brilliantly. That said, Jonny Evans is arguably the most talented central defender I’ve seen at the club.
I was never a Phil Bardsley fan, though. Fine servant – if millionaire footballers can be called that – to the club, and a true warrior at heart. He just wasn’t my kind of footballer really. All heart and no head.
6) What do you make of suggestions United are a “boring long ball side”?
I get a little frustrated with the criticism of Louis van Gaal. Last season just about everyone agreed Man United was a tough job and needing a long-term solution, yet one horrific Iker Casillas performance in the World Cup and the media jump on the ‘genius’ narrative and seem to expect him to wave a magic wand.
It’s a similar situation to Sunderland really, but at a far higher level. This season should be regarded as ground zero: deliver the minimum requirement (Champions League football) and lay the foundations to build something better. Sure, United aren’t entertaining anyone, but there is time for that later. It’s something the game seems to have forgotten, but a little bit of patience – or, more importantly, the bollocks to HAVE patience – goes a long way in football.
7) Do you think United should but Falcao permanently? Do you think he came briskly come good?
I don’t think Falcao is finished, but right now he isn’t worth anywhere near what it would take for United to get him. I’d be looking at the likes of Alexandre Lacazette or Paulo Dybala instead for that kind of money.
8) Will United finish top four?
They should, but it’s wide open this year. Obviously, one of Arsenal, United and Liverpool will miss out, and you can’t discount Tottenham and Southampton either. I suspect most at Old Trafford were a bit disappointed to see Liverpool (secretly) and Spurs lose the Europa League distraction and fixture headache.
I think United will squeeze into fourth, but it’s going to be one hell of a battle.
9) Who has been the best player you’ve seen so far this season and who will win the league for you?
Not something you want to say to Man United fans, but Sergio Aguero was just unreal at the Stadium of Light this season. Absolutely irresponsibly brilliant. David Silva, too, is an amazing footballer to watch.
I think Chelsea will win the league, though. They have enough of an advantage and Eden Hazard is as good as anyone in the world behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. I can’t see them blowing it two seasons in a row.
10) Lastly, give us your old time top xi, with three subs and gaffer.
If we are talking just Sunderland, I’d go:
Thomas Sorensen; Chris Makin, Jonny Evans, Steve Bould, Michael Gray; Lee Cattermole, Steed Malbranque, Ki Sung-yueng; Allan Johnston, Kevin Phillips, Adam Johnson.