Read a full match report of the Premier League game between Manchester United and Sunderland at Old Trafford on Saturday May 3, 2014
The Wearside Great Escape is all but done. With victory over Manchester United, following their magnificent win at Stamford Bridge a fortnight ago, Sunderland have perfected the most unlikely turnaround.
A month ago they were finished. Now, after their first win in the league in this stadium since 1968, their boisterous fans could fill Old Trafford with the insistence that they are staying up. The miracle has happened.
“What we have done in the last four games is unique, special,” said Gus Poyet, their manager, beaming in victory. “Miracle was the word I used a few weeks ago, maybe sometimes it happens. We still need one more win. But now it would be crazy to lose this opportunity.”
Insistently corralled by the combative Lee Cattermole, Sunderland never stopped trying, never stopped running, never stopped battling. In the 89th minute the visiting captain flung himself at a shot from Michael Carrick, deflecting the ball over the bar. It was indicative of the spirit, the drive, the refusal to be defeated that ran through the team in yellow. And but for the intervention of the woodwork, which twice saved Manchester United ’s blushes, the win would have been even more substantial, even more reflective of relative performance.
For the returning old boys John O’Shea and Wes Brown this must have been an odd sensation. Rarely, even in their heyday in the United backline, can they have passed an afternoon as untroubled as this. No longer is the place they were reared the Theatre of Dreams.
It is more the Premier League gift shop, Sunderland the seventh team to emerge from here with maximum points this season, the same number of visiting victories as were conceded in 1973-74. And that was the year United sank into relegation.
Yet another home defeat means that for the club accountants the Europa League dream is effectively over. Ambitious hopes of a late run into the competition have been dashed. Unless Tottenham suffer a catastrophic dip of form in their last couple of games, United’s Thursday nights are clear next season.
More to the point the brief, one-game revivalist surge under Ryan Giggs was brought to a shuddering halt. Mind, if anyone genuinely thought the appointment of the great United stalwart had solved all of the issues swirling around the club, they were deluded.
David Moyes may have been transformed into the Airbrushed One as his time here has been erased from the collective memory, but the problems which brought him down remain utterly unresolved. Watching from whichever pricey holiday redoubt he is currently holed up in, Louis Van Gaal will have realised quite how much work he has to do here. After this, he might be advised to check the small print of his contract.
For his second game in charge, Giggs chose a hugely experienced line-up, with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand at centreback and Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher in the centre of midfield, flanked by Nani and Ashley Young. Though the crowd seemed more excited by the identity of the substitute, cheering the very sight of the returning Robin van Persie warming up on the touchline as they used to trophies being collected here.
Van Persie had apparently arrived at the stadium without his boots. He was not the only member of the home team to have misplaced the fundamental tools of his trade. Most of them appeared to have forgotten their satellite navigation systems.
Rarely, even in this season of underachievement, can so many passes have been misdirected. Carrick in particular had a wretched time, constantly under-hitting his through balls, putting Fletcher under pressure, once heading down precisely into the path of Fabio Borini on the edge of his own area. One long pass out to the substitute Danny Welbeck was so inaccurate it drew a prolonged groan from the stands. Still, it solved one issue for the England manager watching from the directors’ box: Roy Hodgson could strike him from his list of World Cup possibles.
As United laboured, passing the ball sideways with all the conviction of a nervous crab, Sunderland prospered. On the half-hour Connor Wickham, the born again leader of Poyet’s resurgence, ran on to a speculative chip down to the corner flag. There he was shadowed by Fletcher, who should have shepherded either ball or player out of play. He did neither. Wickham easily out muscled the Scot and crossed into the United area.
Seb Larsson, stepping ahead of a predictably statuesque Carrick, swept the ball home. As his shot hit the back of the net, Giggs, who had been watching from the edge of the technical area, turned and went back to the dug out, hands plunged deep into his pockets.
In his club blazer and collar and tie, the Interim One struck an unexpected figure on the touchline: it just didn’t look right that we couldn’t see his knees.
“Consistency wins you trophies,” he said after the game. “We’re nowhere near that this season. It’s a problem that obviously needs to be solved.” He tried to affect change by bringing on Van Persie and Welbeck with twenty minutes to go.
But as Poyet pointed out, Sunderland dealt easily with the threat they offered, reducing the home side to a limp succession of sideways passes across the front of their defence. As United huffed and puffed and failed to produce a single pass of quality to unpick their stubborn opponents, first the substitute Emanuele Giaccherini hit the post, then Borini hit the bar.
In the director’s box, meanwhile, television pictures appeared to show Sir Alex Ferguson dozing. It was only appropriate, his reaction: at Old Trafford this season, the entire club has been asleep at the wheel.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea 6; Jones 6, Ferdinand 5, Vidic 5, Evra 5; Carrick 3, Fletcher 4; Nani 4 (Januzaj 51), Mata 6 (Van Persie 66), Young 5 (Welbeck 66); Hernandez 4.
Subs: Amos (g), Smalling, Valencia, Fellaini.
Booked: Carrick, Vidic.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Mannone 7; Alonso 6, O’Shea 7, Brown 7, Vergini 6; Larsson 7 (Bridcutt 73), Cattermole 8, Colback 7, Johnson 5 (Giaccherini 56); Borini 7, Wickham 7 (Altidore 63).
Subs: Ustari (g), Bardsley, Ba, Scocco.
Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).