Manchester United 0 Sunderland 1: Stuart Rayner's match analysis

Connor Wickham's belated emergence as a Premier League striker has given Sunderland an assurance that will keep them in the top flight

Manchester United's Adnan Januzaj (left) battles for the ball with Sunderland's Adam Johnson
Manchester United's Adnan Januzaj (left) battles for the ball with Sunderland's Adam Johnson

It would not be Sunderland if their Premier League fate was wrapped up with a week of football still to play, but even by the standards of this season it would be a major surprise if the story of 2013-14 did not have a happy ending.

The Black Cats need a point from their last two games – both at home to bottom-half teams with nothing to play for – to just about confirm their place in next season’s Premier League. Even if they fail to get it, it would need Norwich City to beat Arsenal, some high-priced lawyers to play an absolute blinder or Sunderland to lose two games by a combined score of 14-0 while the Canaries draw.

They can, then, start planning for next season, which 11 of their squad are not yet contracted for, after the latest eyebrow-raising result in a season of remarkable wins and scarcely-believable defeats.

On Saturday Sunderland recorded their first win at Old Trafford in 46 years. It is a statistic slightly devalued by the number of teams who can boast similar claims this season, but a significant one nonetheless because of the circumstances it came in.

 

Three weeks earlier the Black Cats were dead and buried as a Premier League team, seven points adrift of safety. Now, unbelievably, with a week of the season left, their Premier League safety is all but assured.

Gustavo Poyet will hammer home to his players that there is still work to be done, but Sunderland’s fans can party when West Bromwich Albion come to town on Wednesday.

If the Uruguayan is one of those they should be toasting for giving his team a fighting chance they ought never to have had from the wreckage left by Paulo Di Canio, Connor Wickham is the other for taking it.

Since their self-inflicted defeat at home to Everton, Sunderland have drawn one game and won the other three. During that run they have come up against all sorts of pressure.

There has been the pressure of playing away to sides chasing the title, the pressure of winning a home game they were expected to – something they had hitherto struggled with – and now of coming up against a side lifted by the presence of a new manager in the dugout.

There has been the pressure of defending a lead, and the pressure of coming from behind. All have been handled so brilliantly, it makes you wonder what this team was doing at the wrong end of the table in the first place.

The biggest change has come from the confidence of knowing that if chances are created, they will be put away. Until Wickham belatedly found his Premier League feet at Manchester City, that was not the case, It put an extra burden on the defence, and led to sloppy mistakes.

On Saturday Wes Brown was immense and John O’Shea assured. Right-back Santiago Vergini was unrecognisable from the nervous figure he cut alongside them in a back three during March and early April. If Sunderland are to build on this strong finish to the season they will have to make themselves less dependent on Wickham next season, which with Fabio Borini likely to return to Liverpool at the end of his season-long loan, will not be easy.

Wickham was not fully fit at Old Trafford, having barely trained all week. But it shows how essential he has become in a short period of time, that he had to play anyway, if only for 64 minutes. His goalscoring purple patch came to an end, yet still he was able to create the game’s only goal. In an encounter between two neat sides, he was the only man to provide any incision.

The Red Devils played as Sunderland sometimes do when below their best – careful in possession but at too plodding a pace to break down defences. So although they dominated possession, the Black Cats were rarely made to feel unsafe once in front.

Ironically, Sebastian Larsson’s cool finish on the half-volley came as the hosts were starting to exert some control, Vito Mannone saving from Patrice Evra and Nani shooting over. Brown needed a great tackle to deny Juan Mata a shooting opportunity.

And although O’Shea cut out Michael Carrick’s cross, it nearly ended in another Sunderland own goal. A few weeks ago, it almost certainly would have.

But once Larsson, in an embarrassing amount of space, passed Wickham’s cross into the net on the half-volley after half-an-hour, the gathering storm passed.

Mannone’s uncharacteristic butter fingers caused as many problems to his team as the opposition, but the Wearsiders came closest to scoring the next goal, twice hitting the woodwork.

When Mannone dropped a corner 10 minutes after the interval, Brown – brilliant on his return to the ground he once called home – hacked clear. A goalmouth scramble followed when Carrick’s header slipped through the goalkeeper’s fingers.

In years gone by, the pressure would inevitably have built, almost always to the point where it could no longer be withstood. Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure there is no longer a sense of inevitability about Manchester United games.

Whether it was that, their own form, or a combination of the two, there was a calm sense of self-assurance around Sunderland as full-time approached.

Emanuele Giaccherini hit the post when picked out by Wickham’s replacement, the much-maligned Jozy Altidore. Jack Colback smashed the rebound into the side netting.

With five minutes to go, Borini made the space to hit a left-footed shot against the crossbar. Marcos Alonso blazed wide when the ball fell to him.

Although Poyet was reluctant to get carried away with such talk after the game, the five teams above are all within striking distance for Sunderland, who have a game in hand over most. It is hard to see all five being reeled in, but there is definitely scope to put a more positive gloss on a season which has featured a Wembley cup final, and earn a few quid in the process.

That would be being greedy. Just to be able to think about that after the dreadful handicap Poyet has overcome is a wonder in itself.

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