O'Neill pays price as United close in on title
Sunderland 0 Man Utd 1
Losing to Manchester United yesterday was the final act for Martin O'Neill as Sunderland boss. Late last night the club issued a statement that they had parted company with the former Northern Ireland international. Sunderland have only seven games left in the Premier League campaign and the threat of relegation hangs over the club.
Champions elect (is it even necessary to add the word elect?) Manchester United rested and rotated and ran out the easiest of winners. Few victories this season will have been gained as comfortably as this for United, no matter how slim the scoreline was, no matter how much both managers spoke of how Sunderland battled in the second half.
It took one of the players involved to cut to the chase. "It was never in doubt even if it was a small scoreline," said goalscorer Robin van Persie, although he will probably see that strike deemed an own goal after the ball diverted off Titus Bramble's thigh and into the net. If it is Van Persie's goal it will be his 20th in the league this season – a defining return. "This team, if you ask me, is full of winners. Everyone knows what he has to do," the Dutchman said.
It was not the only own goal scored by Sunderland. They were flat, lacking in belief, lacking in leadership, lacking in a game plan. A belated head of steam was gained deep into the second half – but it only amounted to long ball after long ball being slung into the penalty area.
A shot on target? That came in the 90th minute from substitute Connor Wickham and was easily fielded by goalkeeper David de Gea.
"I'm delighted with the effort from the team and it bodes well," said a defiant O'Neill afterwards obviously unaware of what was coming down the track. Really? Those next seven opponents – Chelsea, Newcastle United, Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur away and Everton, Stoke City and Southampton at home may feel, reviewing this match, that it bodes well for them also. O'Neill's defiance, however, continued.
"Was it the half-empty or half-full glass?" he said when asked about his optimism despite losing striker Steven Fletcher and key midfielder Lee Cattermole for the rest of the campaign and despite overseeing a team which is now, probably, the most basic in its tactics in the Premier League. "I'm even going to the three-quarters full."
United march on. Tomorrow they face Chelsea in the FA Cup quarter-finals and despite picking up "two or three injuries", according to Ferguson, with Rafael da Silva and Anderson limping off, they arrive at Stamford Bridge having set a record of 25 Premier League wins from 30 matches, having kept six clean sheets and having achieved a 10th victory – plus two draws – from their last dozen visits to the Stadium of Light.
They won here last season, also, of course, and by this scoreline, but it was not enough to win the title.
United have destroyed the opposition in this league campaign and could conceivably beat Chelsea's record tally of 95 points. Ferguson reckoned they needed four more wins from a final eight games – next up it is City at home – but it probably will not come to that, such is the focus they are showing at present.
This was a slow burn of a game. Sunderland, O'Neill admitted, started "tentatively" and that allowed United to dominate proceedings with Shinji Kagawa inexplicably permitted to drop off, behind Van Persie, to collect possession and orchestrate attacks.
Not that United carved out chances. That was until Anderson was allowed to slide a pass down the wing to Van Persie, who was then allowed to run on, with Phil Bardsley backing off, into the penalty area. Van Persie cut back, and back again and then struck an angled cross-cum-shot that skimmed off both Bardsley and Bramble to beat Simon Mignolet. Even this early in, Sunderland seemed defeated. Could they apply any pressure? A brave header away by Jonny Evans and a punch clear from De Gea as he was clattered, for which he was left on the turf for a couple of minutes, suggested it was possible.
Indeed Sunderland did push on, at last, with United unable to clear their lines. Stephane Sessegnon dropped off and started to build the play and from one cross, Chris Smalling headed away before Danny Graham could charge in, while Nemanja Vidic also intervened. It was then incredible to watch, however, as substitute Seb Larsson, less than a minute after coming on, allowed Alex Buttner to run away from him and send in a dangerous shot that Mignolet did well to push over. "The goal was a double deflection and that's what separated the teams," O'Neill claimed. That was not just a glass three-quarters full but one brimming with false optimism.