What a difference a year makes. 12 months ago, United emerged winners from this very ground by the same margin that sealed today’s win, their mood sombre after City’s last minute winner had deprived them of the title. Today, the players as much as the traveling fans left the Stadium of Light with an altogether different feeling as they took another step towards regaining their Premier League crown.
United made the trip to the North East having won 17 of their last 23 Premier League games against Sunderland, and lost only one and having registered a 17-game unbeaten run in the league.
With an FA Cup quarter final replay 48 hours away, Sir Alex Ferguson had hinted at a strong rotation policy, but the changes weren’t as wholesale as expected with De Gea keeping his spot in goal in search of a sixth consecutive clean sheet in the league, while Rafael, Smalling, Vidic and Buttner were deployed in defence. Antonio Valencia, Anderson and England’s men Michael Carrick and Ashley Young were assigned the task of supporting the attacking duo formed by Shinji Kagawa and Robin Van Persie, who looked to put an end to a seven-game goalless streak in club competitions.
Sir Alex had claimed that the behaviour of Sunderland fans last year after news of Aguero’s goal had filtered through, wasn’t going to be forgotten by his men and that it would, instead, provide an excellent motivation to banish last season’s demons.
United, though, were rather slow to get off the mark, Buttner’s effort through Sunderland’s defence being the only occasion in the first 20 minutes when Mignolet was called into action by the visitors.
If United didn’t create much of a threat up-front, Sunderland were enjoying even less fortune in front of David De Gea. Martin O’Neill’s side, deprived of key men Steven Fletcher and Lee Cattermole, struggled to get into the game at all, displaying an alarming lack of quality for a side that is very much at the sticky end of the table.
Halfway through the first half, United finally opened the scoring as Robin Van Persie collected a pass on the left side of the box before unleashing a left-footed effort across goal which took a rather heavy deflection off Titus Bramble’s thigh before ending up in the back of the net.
The Dutchman wheeled away in celebration, but the goal is likely to go down as Titus Bramble own goal for the former Newcastle defender’s deflection left Mignolet no chance.
Five minutes later United were forced to replace the injured Rafael with former Sunderland loanee Jonny Evans who received an excellent welcome from the Stadium of Light, as did Danny Welbeck when he was introduced late in the second half.
Van Persie forced a decent save from Mignolet just before the end of the first half and the Sunderland keeper wouldn’t be called in action for another 40 minutes, the excellent Alex Buttner drawing a smart stop from the Black Cats custodian after combining with Ashley Young down the left hand-side.
In between those two chances, Sunderland tried to muster a rally as they desperately sought to get themselves back into the game. Connor Wickham was introduced to support Danny Graham up-front, but Martin O’Neill’s men failed to create any clear cut chances despite pinning United back in their own half for a 20 minutes spell in the second half.
Cleverley and Welbeck replaced Anderson and Kagawa, restoring United’s grip on the game, with Michael Carrick yet again providing a superb performance, and deep into injury time Van Persie missed a glorious chance to double the score as he fired against Mignolet from close ranger after having been brilliantly teed up by Ashley Young.
The result moves United temporarily 18 points clear of City and, with the Manchester derby a week on Monday, the chants of “We’re having a party on derby day” by the traveling supporters were more than justified.
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