United stand tall for Ferguson but time is running out for Rio

Manchester United 1 Sunderland 0

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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson would always tell other managers that, if they wanted to judge their club's potential, they should climb to the highest point in the ground and look down. Now, he has his own stand to survey the horizons from and the view is not entirely clear.

The fabulous, electric beginning to the season that saw London's three leading teams concede 14 times here has now run into the mud of autumn. Manchester City continue to win and United's only successes in the Champions League have come against Otelul Galati, a side that has treated games against them like an X Factor contestant asked to duet with David Bowie.

United are recovering from the savaging in the Manchester derby two weeks ago; though they are off the drips, this is a side that still requires further injections of confidence.

The process of keeping the renaming of the North Stand secret ran more smoothly than the match that followed. Only nine people at Manchester United knew about it. Work started on Thursday night once the last official tour had left Old Trafford and was completed at two o'clock on Friday morning. The vast lettering was put up three at a time by six men working with abseiling lines and then covered up.

The idea was that of the chief executive, David Gill, and was perhaps the only major event in his quarter-century at Manchester United that has taken Ferguson entirely by surprise.

Had Manchester United wanted a display to match the occasion, they might have attempted to repeat the 5-0 destruction of Sunderland here in 1996 that was topped off by Eric Cantona's sublime chip. In those days, Ferguson used to come up to the press room at Old Trafford but then he sent a note saying further comment on that performance would have been superfluous.

This laboured victory required some explanation and Nemanja Vidic, restored to the ranks and the captaincy after the debacle against Manchester City, was the man to do it. "It was important that we got the win because this was a special occasion for the manager," he said. "But these games can go wrong because during the last two weeks there has been a lot of tension following the derby.

"After the City game we realised we had to play as a team and defend better and I think we have done that in the last four games. We take a lot of satisfaction from the fact we have won them but, if you look at the performances, we can definitely do better. But it was important to show some solidity."

Ferguson called it a "mixed-up game" with nerves betraying his players just as they had Sir Matt Busby's footballers when Manchester United needed to beat Sunderland at Old Trafford to prevent City winning the title in 1968.

There has not been a Wearside victory at Old Trafford since, although but for two own-goals, Steve Bruce would have broken that sequence two years ago and earned a point by now. Bruce had made Wes Brown captain for the day; a decision the Sunderland manager said was founded on "pure sentiment".

The player who had first come to Manchester United as a 12-year-old from Burnage, one of the city's more challenging suburbs, would have imagined his return to Old Trafford in many ways but not by heading Nani's corner into his own net. He was not, however, the most under-pressure central defender beneath the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand. Rio Ferdinand, perhaps the player most scarred by the Manchester derby, is another with an anniversary to celebrate; today sees him turn 33.

At one time, it would have seemed nothing. Ferdinand's elegance and way with a ball means he is the closest thing the Premier League has produced to a Paolo Maldini or an Alessandro Nesta, who played in the shadow of their 40th birthdays.

Now, worn down by back injuries and a loss of pace, Ferdinand seems suddenly vulnerable. Bruce, who lacked Ferdinand's economy of movement, lasted until he was 35 at Old Trafford, which might now be beyond Ferdinand. Against Sunderland, he swapped positions with Vidic, playing on the left side of defence.

"Rio played in most of the big games last season, helped us win the Premier League and reach the Champions League final and yet after one game people are saying he is not good enough," said Vidic.

"Against Sunderland, he showed class, determination and his ability to help others around him. Sometimes, when you have been on top a long time, people judge you on your age and wait for one bad game to say you are finished." He was talking about his long-time defensive partner but might have been referring to his manager.

Scorers: Manchester United Brown (og) 45. Substitutes: Man Utd Berbatov 5 (Welbeck, 73), Carrick (Park, 83), Fabio (Fletcher, 90). Sunderland Dong-Won 5 (Wickham, 5), Meyler (Colback, 76), Elmohamady (Sessegnon, 76).

Booked: Man Utd None. Sunderland Larsson, Dong-Won. Man of the match Westwood . Match rating 6/10.

Possession Man Utd 59% Sunderland 41%.

Attempts on target Man Utd 9 Sunderland 3.

Referee L Mason (Lancashire). Attendance 75,570.

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