Not so long ago a Sunderland point at home to Manchester United would be something of a shock. So far have the might fallen that yesterday it was a bit of a disappointment.
Last season the Black Cats hurdled the psychological barrier the Red Devils once presented, and it was quickly clear yesterday they had no more to fear from Louis van Gaal’s ill-fitting outfit. Forcing the pace in the first half through Connor Wickham and Will Buckley, dangerous on the counter-attack in the second, Gustavo Poyet’s men deserved more from the season’s first home game.
With Fergie Time approaching, even Manchester United’s Twitter feed admitted the hosts were looking the most likely winners.
At times in recent seasons the Black Cats have looked scared in front of their own fans, but the visitors gave that impression yesterday.
In the first half Sunderland could wait for the mistakes. They did not need much patience.
Two minutes in, Tyler Blackett played a terrible pass along his backline. Phil Jones blocked when Wickham sought out Steven Fletcher.
Minutes later Luis Antonio Valencia’s throw-in gave Lee Cattermole a shooting opportunity, and Chris Smalling also flirted with danger.
They did not settle down. In the 43rd minute Jones over-stretched bombing on to Jack Rodwell’s misplaced pass, and although the ball was shepherded back to David de Gea, it was panicky in the extreme. Smalling’s withdrawal for another unproven defender, Michael Keane, could only have added to Sunderland’s confidence.
But it was not simply a case of the Red Devils playing badly. Sunderland’s widemen, Wickham and Buckley, were particularly impressive.
Like Liam Bridcutt on his derby-day debut in February, Buckley looked like he had played for this team for years. He had, it is just the red stripes used to be blue and their name was Brighton and Hove Albion.
While the home debutant impressed with old-fashioned wingplay, Wickham’s was more just good football. He dropped deep after seven minutes to thread a lovely pass to Patrick van Aanholt, but Smalling cut out the cross.
Buckley played a great ball to Wickham after running inside left-sided centre-back Blackett, but his weak shot was easily saved.
Sunderland were quickly reminded how costly mistakes like that could be. As awful as they were in the first two thirds, the unbalanced squad Van Gaal inherited has plenty of cutting edge in the final third. With Van Aanholt standing off, Valencia did not need to beat the left-back. He just made a yard and drilled a low cross which Juan Mata tapped in.
When the visitors next got into a crossing position, Wes Brown headed behind for a corner in splendid isolation. That was about as much danger as Sunderland were posed in the first half.
The pattern of the game did not change with the scoreline.
Buckley did well to get to the byline on 30 minutes and although his cross was blocked his persistence paid off , winning a corner from which Rodwell – also making his first Sunderland appearance at the Stadium of Light – firmly headed an equaliser.
The away team controlled second-half possession, Sunderland eventually matching formation to stifle them, but their goal threat was sporadic at best, while the hosts looked dangerous on the counter-attack.
Wickham displayed some beautiful skill to beat Darren Fletcher, and although his shot was going wide, Blackett fell over as it hit him, adding to the hapless feel.
Sunderland became more ragged as they chased the ball. Twice Cattermole was beaten diving in, and Santiago Vergini was fortunate the referee sides with those who thought his penalty-area lunge at Robin van Persie was fair. Ashley Young got the yellow card he deserved for his dive to try and win a spot kick.
The Wearsiders broke in the 69th minute, but when Wickham returned the ball to Larsson, he never looked like he thought he would score. Improbable central midfielder Adnan Januzaj tackled. Larsson was more at home from a free-kick, but curled off target.
When Danny Welbeck sliced his old team open with an outside-of-the-boot pass, Vito Mannone was quickly out of his area. That Young was denied increased the cheers.
Larsson’s misdirected header and Brown’s into Wayne Rooney caused late flutters, but for the Black Cats to come away without a point would have been unjust.