independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Star is born for United as Januzaj sinks Sunderland

Referee Chris Foy books Manchester United's Adnan Januzaj during the Barclays Premier League match at The Stadium of Light, Sunderland.

For his dive – for which he was rightly booked – Adnan Januzaj can expect the Moyes hairdryer. For his goals and precocious performance the teenager can expect a far warmer glow of praise.

At the Stadium of Light a star was born. Just 18, and making his full Premier League debut, Januzaj lit up this tense, absorbing match and saved his side – in particular, Nemanja Vidic. How the United captain struggled, how the club appeared set to be gripped by crisis. Sunderland may be managerless but, at times, Manchester United appeared defenderless.

Januzaj was rightly cautioned for throwing himself to the turf in search of a penalty with United trailing, and given the strong stance taken by manager David Moyes over Ashley Young's antics he will be spoken to.

But the praise should far outweigh any criticism as he almost single-handedly turned the game around and helped United avoid a third successive league defeat, an unwanted mark they have not suffered since December 2001, and stave off that enveloping sense of crisis.

Moyes deserves huge credit for selecting him and how United now need to tie down this most promising of young talents to a new deal – he is out of contract at the end of this season.

When was the last time United kicked off in 13th place in the Premier League? But that was their predicament and it felt even worse within five minutes with Sunderland going ahead after a terrible blunder by Vidic that epitomised the champions' calamitous defending.

Emanuele Giaccherini tricked his way through on the right, and his low cross was cut out by Phil Jones, only sending the ball back across goal to Vidic.

Horribly, it cannoned off the defender, with a poor touch, and into Craig Gardner's path and his first-time shot beat David De Gea. Soon after and Gardner had another chance – stealing possession from Jones – but his hesitation, deciding between crossing and shooting, allowed the defender to quickly recover.

United were rocked. They appeared hesitant, unsure and even more dependent on Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney. Januzaj was the only positive.

United's 1-0 victory here last season proved to be Martin O'Neill's final game as Sunderland manager and the same still could be applied to Kevin Ball, the interim head coach, even if some players have made it clear they would like him to remain.

The issue of who will succeed Paolo Di Canio was dealt with by chairman and owner Ellis Short, who penned an article in the match programme explaining why the Italian had to go, of which the basic gist was, if he had stayed, Sunderland were going down.

Ball, the under 21 coach, a stalwart and former club captain, is a popular character and there has been an uplift in atmosphere, with also expectation, not least after that early goal, that given United's uncertainties this was a prime-time to face them.

The inclusion of Januzaj was a bold move by Moyes and it almost provided an early dividend as the 18-year-old winger found space outside the area to send a shot just past the post. Nani then hit the same spot as he met Patrice Evra's deep cross on the volley. But he really should have scored, while only Valentin Roberge's sharp interception stopped Rooney claiming a tap-in.

For United, attack was the best form of defence. Not just because they were behind but because their defending was so woeful – as demonstrated by a failure to clear their lines which eventually ended with a dangerous Adam Johnson cross being met by the impressive – but also unmarked – Giaccherini, whose fierce header was brilliantly finger-tipped away by De Gea at full stretch.

United's frustration grew with Rooney cautioned for tripping Gardner after he lost possession. Johnson then forced his way down the left, had a shot blocked, regained the ball and teed up Giaccherini. He ballooned over.

If the sense was that United could move up several gears still, then Sunderland had also clearly wasted chances to kill the contest, although with Jozy Altidore continuing to dominate Vidic there was not a marked change after the interval. Except United became ever more urgent and, finally, they did draw level through Januzaj. The Belgium-born Albanian started the move, sending the ball out wide to Evra, who swept it back in.

Januzaj met the return first-time to side-foot home his first goal in senior football. And what a vital goal it was.

Suddenly United believed. A half-chance fell to Van Persie but his snap-shot was held by Westwood. Januzaj then capped it. A deep cross from the right skimmed off the head of Sunderland defender John O'Shea only for the ball to drop to the winger, who struck a sumptuous left-footed volley which angled back across goal and rippled the net. Westwood had no chance with such a glorious, technically-accomplished effort. Moyes's celebrations said it all.

United ran through their substitutions and Sunderland tried to hit back, but it was the visitors who came closest to scoring again with Van Persie stabbing wide when clean through. But it was to be Januzaj's night.

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