Manchester United should take to the pitch against Sunderland on Saturday in a very different frame of mind from when they walked off the field after their last match against the Wearsiders. Back in May, with Sunderland having been dispatched 1-0 at the Stadium of Light, some players were already celebrating, while others were waiting for confirmation that a 20th league title had been secured.
Of course, that’s not what transpired as Sergio Aguero’s injury-time goal at the Etihad gave Manchester City the title and left United distraught.
But, as they so often have during Sir Alex Ferguson’s 26 years in charge, United have picked themselves up and, following last Sunday’s victory against the side that snatched last year’s championship, they now hold a six point lead at the Premier League summit.
United’s reputation is that they are stronger in the second half of the season and, while there may be something of a myth built up about that scenario, it is a daunting task for any of the challengers to overcome.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s side sit in their lofty position despite having conceded 23 goals in 16 league matches—a total only surpassed by Tottenham in the Premier League’s top 11. While it would be unfair to merely blame the back four for their lack of solidity, United’s defense is set to receive a significant boost on Saturday with the return of captain Nemanja Vidic from a second serious injury in the space of a year.
“Having Vida back in the squad is a big, big one for us: his experience, his ability to head the ball, his offensive qualities are well renowned now and he’s our captain,” Ferguson said, according to Manchester United’s official website. “Whether I start him or not, that’s another issue. But it’s great to have him back.
"We hope we’ve given him the proper rehabilitation. Coming back from the last injury, we gave him a long rehabilitation and I thought it was a good one. But unfortunately he suffered another injury. In fact, in the last year and four months or so, I think he’s only played about 10 games. That’s not a lot of football for a man who’s 30, 31. So it’s an issue and we’re hoping that he sails through it.”
Vidic looks set to come into the center of the defense at the expense of Jonny Evans, who is ruled out with a hamstring injury. Nani will also continue to miss out, while Shinji Kagawa will return to training next week. Anderson remains a couple of weeks away from a return.
While United should come into the clash at Old Trafford in good spirits, the same is also true of their opponents Sunderland. Martin O’Neil’s side recorded their first win in five matches last time out with a morale-boosting 3-0 home victory over Reading that took them out of the relegation zone.
Still, with just one point separating them from the bottom three, O’Neil will know that there is still much work to be done if they are to move up the table.
Former Manchester United defender Wes Brown remains on the sidelines, as does Lee Cattermole. Phil Bardsley is also likely to miss out, while a late decision is expected to be taken on the fitness of Danny Rose and Adam Johnson.
Manchester United (probable)
G: De Gea
D: Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra
M: Carrick, Cleverley
Valencia, Rooney, Young
F: Van Persie
D: Gardner, O’Shea, Cuellar, Rose
M: Johnson, Colback, Larsson, McClean
Prediction: Sunderland have not won at Old Trafford since 1968 and it is hard to see that record changing on Saturday. Especially with Vidic set to return, United’s defense may have a rare comfortable day against a Sunderland side that has been listless going forward prior to Tuesday’s victory over a poor Reading side. At the other end, Sunderland’s defense will surely struggle to contain the likes of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Antonio Valencia for 90 minutes.
Manchester United 2-0 Sunderland
Where to watch: The Barclays Premier League match kicks-off at 10 a.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by the Fox Soccer Channel, with a delayed online stream available later in the day on Fox Soccer 2Go.