United rescued by some more Macheda magic

Sunderland 1 Manchester United 2
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The Independent Football

In time they may come to call this the Federico Macheda title. For the second consecutive weekend the 17-year-old Italian came off the Manchester United bench not only to score a preposterous match-winning goal but also to reassert United's leadership of the Premier League.

Six days after swivelling in injury time at Old Trafford to curl in a belter to beat Aston Villa, Macheda replaced the hesitant Dimitar Berbatov in the 75th minute and 60 seconds later – with his first touch – diverted a Michael Carrick shot past Sunderland's goalkeeper, Craig Gordon, to give United another late victory. It may not have had last-gasp drama but it was late enough.

By comparison with last week, the goals were beauty and beast; whereas then Macheda was the author of his story, yesterday he was a bystander as Carrick's drive rattled into his shin and bent away at speed into the far corner. But it was Macheda's goal, Macheda's winner. He has become United's unlikely talisman.

But they need one. This was not as shaky as United were against Porto or previously against Fulham, but when Kenwyne Jones equalised Paul Scholes's headed opener, the atmosphere in the Stadium of Light spoke of belief that the relegation-threatened team could overturn the champions of Europe. This was not merely blind faith.

But Sunderland are not where they are because they have a glut of great players. Under manager Ricky Sbragia, moreover, they are not expected to steamroller anyone.

There was a half-chance for Djibril Cissé but that was the only one after Jones's 55th-minute strike. A better team would have troubled United more. There were mis-kicks from Gary Neville, Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans, while Ben Foster, in for Edwin van der Sar, flapped at Jones's goal. But Sunderland could not exploit such fragility fully.

So United go to Porto with a reassuring win, even if at times it was scrappy; they have also again taken some wind out of Liverpool's League title push. Sunderland, meanwhile, concentrate on Hull City here next Saturday, a relegation six-pointer. They were applauded off by fans who at last saw signs of cohesion and sweat in their play.

The home side having lost Kieran Richardson and their captain, Dean Whitehead, to injury, supporters heard of a central midfield of Grant Leadbitter and Teemu Tainio. This caused shivers, yet the two men were arguably Sunderland's best players.

Behind them, Calum Davenport, on loan from West Ham, was given a full debut at centre-half, and he was busy quickly. It took Wayne Rooney all of 15 seconds to float a curling shot two feet wide of Craig Gordon's far post, and the idea that Sunderland were going to harass United out of this game – as propagated by Sbragia in midweek – felt far-fetched.

Carlos Edwards was berated for his meekness in the tackle, though he got better when it came to wing-play.

Sunderland's inability to close down United meant time and space for Scholes and Carrick throughout. Rooney was another given too much respect. There was that first-minute shot that caused alarm, then in the 17th minute came a Rooney corner that Vidic met with force. Danny Collins, defending his line, managed a panicky clearance.

Two minutes later, though, Rooney was again fed with possession on the left. Cutting inside and looking up, Rooney sent in an inviting cross that Scholes got to before Anton Ferdinand. All it required was a flick of the head, and even a wee man like Scholes can do that. The ball flew into the top corner, a fine goal.

Comforted by that, United relaxed and ceded some territory. Edwards began to become an influence on the right, faced by John O'Shea. With Phil Bardsley willing to overlap, this was the source of a 30th-minute stab wide by Davenport, a Cissé shot tipped over by Foster and then, five minutes before half-time, a fast Edwards cross that was deflected onto the woodwork by Vidic.

Then in the 55th minute Tainio popped up on the left wing. Once there he nutmegged Ji-Sung Park before reaching the byline and delivering a fantastic cross that Foster had to leave his line for.

But Foster misjudged by a fraction. He got a fingertip to the ball but it hit Jones on the head, and when the ricochet dropped Jones scooped the ball over the line.

This was now a contest. But it was one United were ready for. They sent on Cristiano Ronaldo. And a teenager called Federico Macheda. You may have heard of him.