Still, this was quite a turn-up. The night before United overwhelmed Porto 4-0, Tottenham came to Roker Park and rattled up the same score to inflict on Sunderland their fourth successive Premiership defeat. But United's great victory had a much more damaging effect on themselves than mounting catastrophe had on Sunderland.
The result was no fluke. Sunderland made all the running, received their reward with two second-half goals and, though they handed one back to United almost immediately, the outcome was never really in doubt. Even when the ball fell to Andy Cole in injury time and a reasonable chance was on offer, it was no surprise when he sliced his shot wide.
One might question Alex Ferguson's wisdom in leaving Cole, Ryan Giggs and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer out of his starting line-up, but at the same time it was obvious that all the players involved against Porto would have a job on their hands raising their game. Ferguson was also entitled to expect better of the three men he brought in, Brian McClair, Karel Poborsky and Jordi Cruyff, whose fresh legs were not matched by fresh minds. Neither Cruyff nor Poborsky lasted an hour. "I just thought we were knackered," Ferguson said. "But I couldn't have asked for more after Wednesday.
"We just looked dead. We couldn't get going at all. Not taking anything away from Sunderland, because they fought very hard, but when you're in that sort of situation you hope to keep a clean sheet and maybe steal it. But we've lost a bad first goal and then we were chasing."
Ferguson clearly was not going to be too hard on his team. Neither he nor they really wanted this match to happen. But the fact is that United are far from European champions yet, and the Premiership is a contest they may need to win as much this year as any other. Their next match, at home to Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday, could be tough.
Gary Pallister's groin injury did force one change on United, with Phil Neville coming in and Ronnie Johnsen moving back to partner David May in central defence. But they did not look happy in the face of the tireless work of the Sunderland front pair of Michael Bridges and John Mullin, which was perhaps the key to how the match was won and lost. Until they managed a belated rally, the United attack was anonymous, no one more so than Eric Cantona, who missed with a 20-yard shot late in the first half but otherwise spent the afternoon out of sight on the left touchline.
Sunderland had not created anything very clear-cut until they scored in the 57th minute, and even then the goal owed much to the indecisiveness of Peter Schmeichel. Half-coming to meet Gareth Hall's low cross, he seemed fazed by the presence of Mullin, and when the ball ran out to Michael Gray, there was an easy shot into an unguarded net.
Mullin and Gray both had chances before Mullin made it 2-0 14 minutes from time, running on to another pass from Hall that had the United defence labouring to get back. The own goal from Andy Melville that followed soon after made little difference.Reuse content