In the most famous double-header between Manchester and the North-East, back on the final day of the 1967/68 season, Manchester City won at Newcastle to secure the League championship from United, who lost at home to Sunderland.
The Wearsiders have not won at Old Trafford since and there was never any likelihood of such an occurrence yesterday as Sir Alex Fergusons’s side followed City’s lunchtime victory on Tyneside with one of their own.
They remain six points ahead of their neighbours after beating them last weekend, ensuring that they will be still be top at Christmas, a useful though not infallible guide to the destination of the title. Certainly there are few willing to bet against the contest becoming an exclusively Mancunian affair, just like 1968 and last season.
One reason is that Robin van Persie is now resident in the north-west and his preference for red over blue in the summer has made United favourites to take back the title that was snatched away in such dramatic fashion last May when their win at Sunderland was eclipsed by Sergio Aguero’s astonishing late goal. The delighted reaction of the Sunderland supporters that evening, while only to be expected, upset some of United’s players, notably Wayne Rooney, who responded yesterday like an angry wasp.
Van Persie meanwhile stung Sunderland with one goal – his 15th of the season – and an assist; Tom Cleverley, also excellent throughout, scored a second; and although Sunderland staged a late revival after going 3-0 down, they did little more than emphasise how pleased United will be to have Nemanja Vidic back on full-time duty. He came on for the last quarter of the game and it was Chris Smalling’s negligence rather than the Serb warrior’s that allowed Fraizer Campbell a late goal.
Martin O’Neill’s team had relieved some pressure on themselves and the manager with a 3-0 win over Reading in midweek, escaping from the bottom three, which was just as well with a demanding month ahead and the available squad well below full strength.Lacking the former United men Wes Brown and Phil Bardsley as well as Danny Rose, O’Neill juggled his remaining troops with Carlos Cuellar and Jack Colback as unconvincing full-backs who had difficult afternoons against Antonio Valdencia and Ashley Young, backed up on each flank by the rampaging Phil Jones and Patrice Evra.
Craig Gardner and Seb Larsson in central midfield could not muster any sort of control and soon had to be joined there by James McClean, switched from the left wing. O’Neill continued to mix and match all game, the best period coming towards the end when he threw on Campbell to join Connor Wickham in attack.
“I was encouraged by our second-half performance,” the Sunderland manager said. “Manchester United didn’t need the helping hand that we gave them with the first two goals, but we showed a lot of spirit and at 3-1 we were still in the game and had some chances.” He did admit: “We will have to be looking at strengthening our side,” the leading scorer Steven Fletcher having injured his back in the warm-up and contributed next to nothing before being substituted in some pain at half-time.
Sunderland had barely ventured forward before falling two goals behind. For the first, Young bamboozled Cuellar, and the unfortunate John O’Shea, hoping for a happier return to Old Trafford, nudged his cross to Van Persie, who controlled and shot in one smooth movement. The second came via two supposedly defensive midfielders; Cleverley played a pass to Michael Carrick, ran into the area for the return and clipped it past Simon Mignolet.
All Sunderland had to offer before the interval was one chance to capitalise on Rio Ferdinand’s error, but McClean, having robbed him, selfishly shot from an unlikely angle with Craig Gardner waiting.
Wickham, on for Fletcher, made a difference, but the contest was just about ended when Van Persie passed to Young, ran round him to take a return and slipped effortlessly between two defenders to lay on a tap-in for Rooney. Then Rooney’s deflected shot hit the bar – “he could have had four today,” Ferguson said – before Sunderland with a pair of positive substitutions began to trouble a defence now with Vidic for the first time since mid-September.
To the crowd’s delight he reintroduced himself with a couple of firm tackles and Smalling, completing a full house of fit United defenders, was the man missing at the far post when Campbell nodded in Stephane Sessegnon’s chip. The statistics on possession and chances stacked up quite well for Sunderland. It was the one important one that did not.
Manchester Utd (4-4-2): De Gea; Jones, Smalling, Ferdinand (Vidic, 68), Evra; Valencia, Carrick (Scholes, 46), Cleverley (Giggs, 73), Young; Rooney, Van Persie.
Sunderland (4-4-1-1): Mignolet; Cuellar, Colback (McFadden, 85), O’Shea, Bramble; Larsson, Gardner, Johnson (Campbell, 68), McClean; Sessegnon; Fletcher (Wickham, 46).
Referee: Chris Foy (St Helens).
Man of the match: Van Persie (Manchester United)
Match rating: 6/10