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Sunderland 0-1 Manchester United – Five talking points

1. One of those signature United games that’s decided by an inevitable early goal

For the Mancunians, this fixture has always been deemed to be one of those scrappy affairs in the league that would always have its share of wobbles to frown upon. However, given the not-so-sweet memories from their last visit at the Stadium of Light, Sir Alex would have warned his side of any kind of complacency ahead of the fixture. A rather tame line-up was understandable from the Scot with the crucial Cup tie awaiting his side in a couple of days’ time, while an already depleted Sunderland unit –  thanks to injuries marring their campaign consistently – reflected a setting for another one-sided affair. O’Neill’s lads predictably were content in gifting possession to the away side and rather wait for the breaks where Johnson, Rose and McLean were handed the responsibility on the wings to create something for the lone forward man Danny Graham.

(Manchester United‘s off the ball movement in the first-half against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light:)

Manchester United's off the ball movement in the first-half against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.

Instead, the home side looked pretty tentative with their exchanges on the breaks and their positioning off the ball let them down throughout the game. Manchester United, with Buttner looking to move inside from the left and Young playing overlaps for Van Persie, who was finding enough space between an inconsistent Bardsley and Bramble, inadvertently proved to exploit the game-breaking chances from the left-wing.

Persie’s ability to assist the wing-play has been a critical pointer in United’s game this season that has seen a seismic change in their off-the-ball movement. Kagawa and Anderson also made the most of the gaps led by an advancing Gardner and the game was overpowered by a tactical onslaught on the left that left O’Neill with few options to comeback until the break. All and all, United were looking for that one breakthrough before they could ease the tempo of the game and the plan couldn’t have been executed in any better way. An away result, a trademark United 1-0 affair did enough to bring a smile on Sir Alex’s face as even he’d know that he might have done just enough to clinch the title where he lost it the last time around.

2. Sunderland add nothing but more misery to their portfolio by sacking Martin O’ Neill

One never has to watch a Martin O’Neill’s side on the field to judge their performances – all you have to do is observe the Northern Irishman’s body language on the touchline. On a more cheerful afternoon at the Stadium of Light, you could hardly take your eye off Neill’s animated demeanour on the touchline. However, on this particular afternoon, all we saw was an image of a livid instructor that never really looked to be a part of the game. He was rather speechless when his side’s defence was stretched and torn apart by some witty attacking display from the travelling side while the forward line did hardly anything noticeable to have caught the manager’s attention.

Moreover, to add further misery, Titus Bramble connected to another stray ball to net another own goal. O’Neill did try to switch things around after the break with the introduction of Seb Larrson and Connor Wickham, yet the damage was done by the visitors who’ve time and time again delivered some unwavering performances in the second half of the season.

No doubt, opposition managers expect the least returns against the Manchester side, yet performances as disorganized and at times, displaying sheer impotence upfront could only worsen O’Neill’s pursuit for a safe haven on the Premier league avenue this season. And when it comes to paying for the unruly stints on the field from a side, it’s always the manager who has to pay a swift price of a knee-jerk reaction from the employers – and Martin O’Neill’s abrupt sacking epitomizes these kinds of unfortunate moments in modern football. Impatience finally got the better of Ellis Short, the American owner of the Black Cats, who after the game and an inevitable result on the basis of club’s recent run, decided to dismiss the Irishman from the managerial duties. Mark Hughes is tipped to be the next appointment to reinvigorate the listless side, yet Premier League history is stuffed with examples where late managerial sackings invariably lead to sheer disappointment.

3. Shinji relished in rare stint as a playmaker

When the line-ups were announced, there weren’t many surprises in the United starting XI to start off with. However, with Ferguson looking to give Shinji Kagawa a playmaking role, it opened an array of creative possibilities ahead of the game. The Scot, impressed with the Japanese finding some form in the recent Premier League games would’ve expected a decent return off the Persie-Kagawa combination, and he wouldn’t have been disappointed at the end of the game.

Kagawa harried and outclassed the home side with his sharp passing and combination play with Ashley Young and Van Persie in the opening phase of the game. In fact, his movement upfront explored further options for United’s attacking end that came close to scoring for more than one occasion in the opening 45 minutes. His close control and the eye for that inventive defence splitting pass tested the Sunderland backline to the limit before he was subbed off – probably to save some ammo for the Cup tie at the Bridge.

4. Wickham’s performance could bring some hope for his struggling side

The Rokerites’ favourite fanzine – A Love Supreme – was recently crying outloud for O’Neill to find a new hero in these moments of crisis for the side. Especially when Steven Fletcher, who has scored a third of Sunderland’s goals this season and Lee Cattermole sidelined with injuries, the Black Cats need a new motivator to steer his side to safety before the insane period of scrappy fixtures and crucial points gets to the nerves of fans and players alike. And in a youngster like Connor Wickham, who eludes any kind of baggage on his shoulders except for his hefty price-tag could be the solution Sunderland have been waiting for.

Yes, he hasn’t really sprinkled his much talked about stardust on the club level and O’Neill has been writing off his promising shifts for the England U-21, calling the youngster’s performances rather insignificant, but he still remains one of the few hopes that could assure safety for the Black Cats. By staying away from the flat atmosphere at the Tyneside and getting some games on a loan spell in Sheffield, Connor’s recent appearances have been reflecting anything but pressure in his game. His raw talent was again on exhibition in the second half against United where his tenacious approach did create a couple of viable openings for the home side.

Now with O’Neill dismissed, if only the new manager could show a little more faith on the boy and start him as a target-man, he could yield a lot more out of the flanks and could eventually feed some chances to Danny Graham, who has yet to make an impact as a Sunderland player.

5. Incomparable for sure, yet Carrick’s finesse exudes the Scholes-esque authority in the midfield

If anyone could give Robin van Persie’s club player of the year honour a run for his money, then it has to be Mr. Consistent – Michael Carrick. If buying the rampaging Dutchman has sharpened the attacking edge of the squad, Carrick’s magnificent run in the red shirt has been vital to restoring order on the field. Of course, the comparisons will be made with the genius of Paul Scholes, as both employ contrasting methods to garner a sense of calmness to the game even on a more tedious and difficult evenings on the turf.

In the second half, when all United had to do was keep the ball and eliminate any possible threat from the home side, Carrick’s influence was resounding as ever. He had more touches on the ball than any other player on the field and passing completion (91% for the game) has been as good as any elite midfielder in Europe this season – which is again an element of United’s game that was synonymous to Scholes for the last few seasons. It’s been no major surprise why Scholesy hasn’t been of much use in the key games this season as you just cannot undermine Carrick’s contributions to the winning run this season.

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