Sunderland moved within touching distance of Premier League survival with a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford to halt Manchester United’s most temporary of revivals under the charge of Ryan Giggs.
For United it was more of what has been seen for much of the season under David Moyes rather than the improvement witnessed in last week’s demolition of Norwich and hopes for a quick return to the glory days of which Giggs was such a big part on the pitch. A lackluster performance saw a properly rejuvenated Sunderland get the only goal through a fine Sebastian Larsson volley on the half-hour mark. The win could have been made far more comfortable had efforts from Emanuele Giaccherini and Fabio Borini been a couple of inches either way and found the net rather than the woodwork. But with United spurning what precious few chances they did create in the second half, Sunderland were able to hold on without undue drama for another massive three points.
Bottom of the Premier League just two weeks ago, Sunderland could now be safe with two matches to spare if Norwich City fall to defeat at Chelsea on Sunday. In an unenviable run of fixtures, Gus Poyet’s side have been superb, getting a point at Manchester City, before winning at Chelsea, breezing past Cardiff and now getting the better of the champions.
It was Sunderland’s first victory at Old Trafford since 1968 as the Wearsiders became the latest team to take advantage of the chance to end a long winless streak at the Theatre of Dreams. The defeat was United's seventh at Old Trafford, the most they have suffered since they were last relegated from the top flight in 1974, and drums home the scale of the team’s decline this campaign.
Manchester United, who were missing Wayne Rooney through injury and illness, attempted to take the initiative early, with all their early attacks coming down the right side. Ashley Young was lively, but whether it be down to poor crosses or the failure of players to take a chance at the near post, the hosts failed to create anything of note. With Nani at his most wasteful, Juan Mata unable to find space and Javier Hernandez’s ability to play on the shoulder of the last defender hampered by Sunderland’s defense sitting deep, the visitors were having a comfortable afternoon.
The only moments of danger came when Nani’s one positive contribution saw him fire just over the bar after a rare injection of pace into the United attack, while John O’Shea was close to getting a goal for his former club with a mishit clearance. But Giggs’s side became increasingly ponderous and Sunderland became ever more assured as they looked to make it back-to-back memorable away wins.
Although they hadn’t created a chance to that point, with 30 minutes played they went in front. United’s lackluster play was a big factor in them falling behind. First, Darren Fletcher stepped away to allow recent goal-scoring hero Connor Wickham to put in a hopeful cross from the right, before his fellow midfielder Michael Carrick, poor throughout, allowed Larsson to run off him and place a cleanly struck volley into the bottom corner of the net from 12 yards.
Giggs switched Nani and Young over after going behind, but it did little to lift the side. A well-struck effort from Mata that was held by Vito Mannone was the best they could muster before the interval.
United had improved considerably after half-time in last week’s 4-0 win over Norwich City and there were some early signs of that once more. Hernandez was just unable to get to a Patrice Evra cross first at the near post, while Nemanja Vidic headed wide. With Sunderland having seen off that initial brief revival, Giggs turned to Adnan Januzaj followed by Danny Welbeck and the fit again Robin van Persie.
Although Januzaj had some positive touches, there was no late bombardment from United. Van Persie turning a low cross wide of the near post was the closest they came. In contrast, Sunderland could easily have extended their lead.
Giaccherini struck a good low shot against the post before, with David de Gea again unmoved, Borini cut in from the right of the box and curled an effort against the crossbar. Those near-misses were to prove inconsequential to allow Poyet to celebrate intensely and justifiably at the final whistle for what looks like being one of the Premier League’s greatest escapes.