With only Tottenham of their mid- to long-term rivals playing yesterday (and dropping points), opportunity knocked for Manchester United but went unanswered. Instead they offered Chelsea, Liverpool and the rest every incentive for this afternoon's busy programme by surrendering two points to Sunderland, who had not won here since May 1968. On that occasion the visitors ensured the League championship went to Manchester City instead of United; the effect this time will not be known for another seven months.
Relief was nevertheless the overwhelming emotion for the majority of the Old Trafford audience, as it required an own goal by Rio Ferdinand's younger brother, Anton, late in injury time to save the champions from a second defeat of the season in their eighth game. Rio Ferdinand had been left out as United made seven changes and in an astonishingly ineffective first-half performance, they fell behind to a fine drive by Darren Bent and suffered the indignity of sporadic booing at the interval.
Dimitar Berbatov equalised with an even better goal five minutes into the second half, only for Kenwyne Jones to head Sunderland back in front. Fabio Capello, having dashed from Bolton to watch his second game of the day, will have been impressed by Bent, but less so with Ben Foster in United's goal, whose star is currently waning.
Bent's goal, his seventh of the season, was driven perfectly just inside a post following a pass from the lively Lee Cattermole. That effort and his team's confident start were such a shock that the home crowd were not roused for fully quarter of an hour and United failed to trouble the visitors for considerably longer. Their sluggish work was all the more unexpected since Sir Alex Ferguson had been rotating the side so successfully since the August defeat by Burnley that they had been able to employ almost any combination of midfielders until yesterday without losing either cohesion or matches.
Use of the golden oldies Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes has been sparing, to the benefit of both; yesterday, Giggs was rested altogether after scoring his 150th goal for the club against Wolfsburg in midweek – postponing his 100th in the Premier League for another day – and Scholes came back in, only to be substituted at the interval after receiving one of his regular yellow cards.
Bruce was rewarded for taking the bold option in fielding two strikers in Bent and Jones, who proved a handful
for Jonny Evans – standing in for Rio Ferdinand – and Nemanja Vidic, replacing him as captain. Behind them, Cattermole offered some thoughtful passing as well as his usual vigour alongside the smooth Albanian Lorik Cana. The new slimmer-line Andy Reid, one and a half stone lighter and all the better for it, was excellent on the left, but it was a less satisfactory day for Kieran Richardson, now converted to full-back, who was sent off five minutes from the end after receiving a second booking.
With David Bardsley on the right, Sunderland fielded two former United players at full-back, who dealt well with Nani and young Danny Welbeck until the Portuguese began cutting loose towards the
end. With 25 minutes played, the United pair were already switching flanks in search of greater productivity, but all that happened was that Richardson was booked for body-checking Welbeck, as Scholes had already been for a blatant trip on Bent. That stemmed, for once, not so much from the midfielder's fabled lack of tackling ability as from frustration. So did Wayne Rooney's little dig at Reid after the ball had gone, which the referee saw but did not punish.
Vidic's fierce low cross that Craig Gordon did well to grab and a shout for handball against Reid as he brought down a cross were Sunderland's only anxious moments in the opening half. As United left the pitch to the highly unusual sound of booing, several players were probably wondering whether they would be returning for the second half. Scholes was the one who did not and his replacement, Anderson, got the crowd going at last with his first full-blooded tackle, the team soon responding with an equalising goal. Although Craig Gordon saved as Rooney met Nani's low cross, he could do nothing after Ferdinand hacked away to John O'Shea, whose lofted centre was brilliantly hooked in by a scissors kick from Berbatov.
Yet United were level for only eight minutes. Reid played no fewer than three wall passes in the build-up, before chipping forward for Jones to climb above Foster and head in. Darren Fletcher was booked for protesting but, as television replays confirmed, the fault lay with the goalkeeper not the referee. On either side of two good efforts by Rooney, both narrowly wide, Ferguson summoned Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia to replace Fletcher and the disappointing Welbeck.
It seemed that neither the substitutes nor four minutes of added time could save United this time, but after Richardson had been dismissed, Carrick set up Evra, whose low shot was flying wide until the unfortunate Ferdinand diverted it past his goalkeeper. His big brother, sitting in the dug-out, conspicuously failed to celebrate. When Anton recovers his sense of humour he might claim a one-nil lead in the goalscoring contest that the brothers undertake each season.
Referee: Alan Wiley
Man of the match: Reid
Match rating: 7/10