Sunderland Preview: Payback The Black Cats

After playing only one match for the best part of the last month, Manchester United will hopefully be able to proceed with their Barclays Premier League season as they match up against Sunderland on Boxing Day at Old Trafford.

Due to the adverse weather conditions in England, and some very poor sportsmanship by Chelsea, United has only had the chance to play Arsenal, which, despite the scoreline, they won quite decisively, since their 7-1 annihilation of the Blackburn Rovers on November 27.

Meanwhile, Sunderland has been able to play all three of their matches during that same span, which has seen the Black Cats admirably move up the league table by gaining seven points from those fixtures.

Even though, the Reds has played one less fixture than Arsenal and Chelsea, and two less than Manchester City, they still find themselves atop of the Premier League standings at Christmas for the first time since 2006/07 – which saw United claim back their title that same season.

However, nothing can be taken for granted, because this has certainly been the strangest Premier League season to date, which has seen the so-called lesser teams close the gap on the most powerful teams – and Sunderland is one of those teams.

Proof of this being true, is that Sunderland has already amassed 27 points in just 18 games, which means that they would only need 18 points from their remaining 20 games to eclipse last season’s total of 44.

The Mackems fine season has seen them climb up to sixth place in the league standings, which has had their manager, Steve Bruce, claiming that Sunderland is eyeing a place in one of Europe’s competitions next season.

It should come as no surprise as to why Sunderland has such a lofty league position, though, because, as it stands right now, the Black Cats has only conceded 18 goals, which is good for fourth in the league – and only two more than United.

Led by their manager’s defensive-minded approach, Sunderland has shutout three of the top four teams in the Premier League standings – which included an impressive 3-0 win away at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea.

The other three remarkable results all happened at the Stadium of Light – a late 1-0 win over Manchester City, a last-gasp 1-1 draw with Arsenal and a fine goalless draw against United.

The nil-nil result can be considered as a point gained for United, because Sunderland definitely had the Reds pinned on their back foot for much of the game.

To be fair, United rarely does well after a grueling away trip in the UEFA Champions League, so it was an almost expected result – but the sleep-walking performance throughout the first-half was discouraging to say the least.

The Reds were obviously winded from their trip to Spain, but the off-balanced formation that Sir Alex Ferguson opted for was clearly the problem, however, that was down to the limited options that the manager had, as case-in-point, was the Premier League debut for young Bébé.

The lack of balance in the United midfield, particularly on the left-side, saw Sunderland take full advantage, and had a field day as the Black Cats relentlessly attack John O’Shea two-v-one for most of the match.

This was all created because Michael Owen and Federico Macheda were forced to play out of position, and offering very little help tracking the positive runs by both Nedum Onuoha and Ahmed Al Muhammadi.

Sunderland were definitely the better side on the day, and evidence of that was the home side created 20 chances to United’s 12, and it saw Edwin van der Sar produce his best performance of the season to prevent a loss.

However, Bruce will be forced to pick a very different side from that match, because he is faced with a suspension to one of his vital midfielders, numerous defensive injuries and a very influential attacking player being ineligible due to a certain loan deal.

With what should not come as a real surprise, is that his hard-nosed center midfielder, Lee Cattermole, will miss through suspension after picking up his fifth yellow card – which is on top of his two red cards this season.

Bruce could also be without his first-choice center-back pairing of Michael Turner and Titus Bramble as well as one of their replacements, John Mensah, which will certainly leave Sunderland short at the back.

In spite of the injuries, the former United captain will call upon line-up with two former Reds as Phil Bardsley and Kieran Richardson will get the nod to play their part against their former employer.

However, it is another United youngster, though, who has recently taken the Premier League by storm.

Danny Welbeck, who will miss the games due to the loan agreement between his parent club and his current club, has scored five of the Mackems nine goals in their last six matches, and his services will be surely missed.

Up front for Sunderland, Darren Bent has yet again become their go-to-guy, and the England international is again leading the Black Cats with seven goals from his 15 Premier League appearances.

Despite Bent’s solid production up front, Sunderland has only totaled only 21 goals – 15 fewer than United – which is down to them only having only five players finding their name on the score sheet.

Asamoah Gyan, who arrived in the summer for a cool £13 million, is currently tied with Welbeck as the club’s second leading scorer with five goals, but his pace will be a threat against United.

The final player that will be closely watch by the United supporters is Jordan Henderson, because Bruce revealed that Sir Alex has told him to keep him informed on his progress, and the young midfielder has performed quite well this season.

Ahead of the match, Owen, who has missed the last two months of the season, has deemed himself fit and ready to play a part in the jam-packed United fixture list.

The prolific striker will be a welcomed addition to what should be a near-fully fit squad, and will offer the Gaffer a selection headache over the festive break.

Other news on the injury front is that Paul Scholes has been ruled out until the New Year, which will be good news for one of the other three central midfielders.

Although the Reds were pushed to brink of defeat back in October, Manchester United should take all three points off of Sunderland and remain top of the Barclays Premier League standings.

Out: A. Valencia (leg), O. Hargreaves (hamstring), P. Scholes (groin); Probable: M. Owen (hamstring)

E. van der Sar; Rafael, R. Ferdinand, N. Vidic, P. Evra; Nani, Anderson, D. Fletcher, J. S. Park; W. Rooney, D. Berbatov

Manchester United 2 Sunderland 1

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