Seven games without a win and three points from a possible 21. When Sunderland peeked at the fixture list and saw Manchester United next to their name it’s not difficult to imagine the sigh of resignation that immediately followed. After all, when you’re in a rut the last team you’d want to face are the Premier League leaders. Especially when you’ve just been hit by the news that both captain Lee Cattermole and leading goal scorer Steven Fletcher won’t kick a ball again this season. It’s probably not the best time to mention that they failed win any of their final eight games either. If that happens again they’ll be lining up in the Championship come August. That is the stark reality currently facing Martin O’Neill who needs to dig deep into his motivational repertoire and rally his troops for one last big effort. Supporters have bemoaned O’Neill’s reluctance from his tactical plan as the primary factor in their slide but the current spate of injuries may force his hand. And with Fletcher sidelined £5 million January signing Danny Graham could be given an opportunity in his favoured lone striker role. He’s yet to open his account on Wearside and must step up to fill the void left by his strike partner.
Don’t expect Sir Alex Ferguson’s men to shower a little mercy on their beleaguered hosts. They head to the North East seeking a seventh straight Premier League win and sixth successive clean sheet. Even with the FA Cup clash with Chelsea on Easter Monday there is no chance Ferguson will allow the players to relent in pursuit of the title. Especially given the way Sunderland’s supporters taunted him and the United players on the final day of last season. Even with a 15 point lead at the top the United boss won’t concede a day off to his troops and has already admitted he wants to set a new points record.
Leading scorer Steven Fletcher and club captain Lee Cattermole have been ruled out for the rest of the season giving Sunderland boss Martin O’Neill an unwelcome selection headache. Stephane Sessegnon, David Vaughan (both groin) and Carlos Cuellar (ankle) are doubts.
Nani, Phil Jones and Paul Scholes are in contention for Manchester United after featuring in training this week. Sir Alex Ferguson is expected to rest a raft of key players ahead the FA Cup clash with Chelsea on Easter Monday.
What the managers said…
“Manchester United, as much as anybody in European football, have the squad to cope with it, and they have proved that. The manager has changed the side around during the course of the season and yet they find themselves 15 points clear at the top of the table. That’s no fluke. What they have is a lot of good players, some who don’t play all the time, but who are every bit as capable as the players they replace. The match they have got coming up, I don’t think will make any difference because they have the squad to cope with it.” Martin O’Neill isn’t expecting an easy ride against Manchester United on Saturday (Evening Chronicle)
“There’s not any bitterness from my point of view. It happens and we move on. We’ve dusted ourselves down and made a really good challenge in the league this year. The concentration has been fantastic and the team spirit is really good. So, in that respect, we’ve answered it as best we can. So I don’t have any issues with the Sunderland fans. I don’t think the Sunderland fans wanted City to win it any more than we did. It was just a fact that they were our opponents that day and it goes back to what I was saying about present society. You see it with supporters every week. Wherever the fans are in opposite corners, they are venting their spleens at each other. It’s what happens in modern-day football.” Sir Alex Ferguson says he doesn’t feel any bitterness towards Sunderland fans after they celebrated his sides title loss last season (manutd.com)
Pre-Match Statistic: Sunderland have lost 17 of the 23 meetings with Manchester United and have managed to record just two wins.
Prediction: Sunderland 0-3 Manchester United