The condemned men of Sunderland were finally dispatched through the Premiership exit door at Old Trafford last night but, rather than go quietly, they sounded the death knell for Manchester United's lingering title hopes. "The killer blow," was how Sir Alex Ferguson described the goalless draw that left Chelsea on the brink of a second successive League championship and has given Jose Mourinho the chance to seal the crown when United arrive at Stamford Bridge on 29 April.
Given such a galling prospect for Ferguson, and the race could be over by Monday if his side falter at Tottenham and Chelsea take maximum points from Bolton and Everton, it was no surprise to witness the United manager incandescent with rage at his side's failure to score one goal against the League's bottom club. The prospect of stealing the title from Chelsea's determined grasp had always appeared as remote as Sunderland's chances of avoiding relegation but, as both aspirations died on Good Friday, the Scot struggled to contain his emotions, blaming the weight of expectation upon Wayne Rooney, plus the "worst performances of the season" from Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney. There was no mention of the mediocre displays that had littered almost two thirds of the campaign and enabled Chelsea to establish such an extensive lead.
"Sunderland have the worst record in the division but they came here and enjoyed themselves and in that respect [the title race] tonight was the killer blow," said Ferguson. "The lack of composure in the final third was the key but I've said all along that you have to expect inconsistency with young players. We know Rooney and Ronaldo are going to be great players, but all the hype and responsibility that has been placed on Rooney took its toll tonight. This talk of Wayne winning the World Cup for England is the biggest piece of nonsense I have heard in my life. He is a kid, and it showed tonight. That was possibly the worst performance of the season from the two of them."
Finding fault with another erratic display from Ronaldo was not difficult, but citing Rooney, the 20-year-old who is most responsible for offering Ferguson a belated reprieve this season, was baffling. The key performer last night was the Sunderland goalkeeper Kelvin Davis, a man dropped and ridiculed earlier in the season but who defied United with a series of outstanding saves. "Goalkeepers have had great nights here before but we have got by them," mourned Ferguson.
United now stand six points adrift of Chelsea, having played a game more, and have four matches to overturn that deficit. For Mourinho, who could effectively confirm the title with two victories over Easter and will be out of sight with a triumph over United at the end of the month, it proved a very good Friday indeed.
Impending relegation, rather than outside hopes of the title, was the more liberating motivation as Sunderland played with a verve that not even Arsenal managed to produce six days previously. Their final points tally may suggest otherwise but poorer sides than the Black Cats have darkened the Premiership in recent years and Kevin Ball's men proved a willing, if toothless, opponent - Liam Lawrence, Chris Brown, Grant Leadbitter and Jonathan Stead all testing Edwin van der Sar on a night when United took too long to show the urgency demanded.
Ferguson's team began to finally test the Sunderland goalkeeper after the half-hour but when Stead turned a low cross wide at the far post it prompted the brooding figure of Ferguson to make a rare appearance on the touchline.
His body language suggested a man fearing "one of those nights". Van Nistelrooy and Rooney both tested Davis with venomous shots from distance only for composure to desert them whenever they drew closer, not least when Gary Neville picked out the unmarked Dutchman at the far post only for the cross to somehow elude him. Seconds later, Ronaldo failed to beat Davis from 12 yards, and then Ferguson revealed his desperation, and perhaps even a touch of romance, by turning to the man for whom late winners earned him a place in United folklore, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. But those days have gone, and so has the title.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Evra (Silvestre, 66); Ronaldo, O'Shea (Solskjaer, 66), Giggs, Park; Rooney, Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Heinze, Solskjaer, Fortune, Silvestre.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Davis; Hoyte, Breen (Caldwell, 63), Collins, McCartney; Lawrence, Whitehead, Leadbitter (Miller, 73), D.Murphy; Stead (Le Tallec, 79), Brown. Substitutes not used: Kyle, J.Murphy (gk).
Referee: R.Styles (Hampshire).Reuse content