Saturday 24 February 2018

United keep on front foot

Manchester United's Robin van Persie (centre) celebrates scoring their first goal during the Premier League match against Sunderland at Old Trafford yesterday
Manchester United's Robin van Persie (centre) celebrates scoring their first goal during the Premier League match against Sunderland at Old Trafford yesterday

With what appears to be a bright future ahead, perhaps it is no surprise that Manchester United are in no mood to be haunted by their recent past.

Seven months ago United believed they had won the title at the Stadium of Light and were still on the pitch waiting to celebrate when news came through that Sergio Aguero's goal had secured for Manchester City the win over QPR that gave them the title, prompting gleeful celebrations among the Sunderland support.

But while Wayne Rooney admitted this had become one of the first fixtures he looked for after that bitter experience, it is what awaits United in another six months that takes up the majority of his and his teammates' focus.

They remain six points clear at the top of the Premier League and if they continue to play as they did for the majority of this routine win, which saw Sunderland threaten only when already three goals behind, they are likely to be experiencing very different emotions next May.

Robin van Persie and Tom Cleverley put United two up inside the first 20 minutes, with Sunderland's only real resistance being their fans doing 'The Poznan' celebration that was adopted by City's supporters and singing songs about Aguero.

Martin O'Neill said afterwards that he believes Van Persie could make the difference for Manchester United this season. Van Persie's goal was his 15th goal of the campaign. The return justifies Alex Ferguson's decision to spend £24m on the 29-year-old last summer.

And O'Neill can see why. "Robin van Persie was a great purchase," said O'Neill. "It means Manchester United are capable of scoring goals because Wayne Rooney is a top quality player as well.

"Whilst their main players stay fit Manchester United are capable of winning the league."

Wayne Rooney added a third before the hour, but despite the bonus of bringing recently-recovered captain Nemanja Vidic on for the final quarter of the match, United could not hold on for what would have been just a fifth clean sheet in 25 matches this season, with Fraizer Campbell heading in for the visitors.

With Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia relentless on the flanks and Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley emerging as a strong central partnership behind Van Persie and Rooney, who have managed nine goals between them in their last four league games, Ferguson felt that some of the football was as good as United have played this season.

"Some of the play was terrific and I don't know whether we relaxed at 3-0 or whether Sunderland got a grip on the game with 20 minutes to go," Ferguson said.

"But up to then some of our play was fantastic and we should have scored a lot of goals. It was possibly some of the best football we've seen this season, some of it was very good. I have no complaints about that first hour. It was wonderful to watch."

The hosts could have been well ahead by the time Van Persie swept in at the near post after Young's cross was not cleared by John O'Shea, and Cleverley then added a second when he burst on to a return pass from Carrick to guide a shot smoothly past Simon Mignolet. Rooney, who missed two easy opportunities from inside six yards in the opening period, hit the bar just after the interval.

"People keep saying we are weak in midfield but these guys are very good players," added Ferguson. "Sometimes it gives me a little problem selecting the right two, although today was simple because [Michael] Carrick and Cleverley deserved to play after their performance [against Manchester City] last week."

Cleverley is making an impact in the Paul Scholes role, with Ferguson admitting he should be scoring more often after taking his overall United tally to three.

"Tom has goals in him," said Ferguson. "As a younger player he always had a goal in him. He has got me three this season and I really do expect more from him because he is a nice finisher."

Before the hour Van Persie skipped inside Carlos Cuellar and Titus Bramble and crossed for Rooney to touch in at the far post but, despite Vidic's introduction, there was the irritation of seeing the clean sheet spoiled by Campbell.

Sunderland lie just a point above the relegation zone, but O'Neill said: "I was very encouraged by the second-half performance. The goals we conceded weren't too clever and a difficult afternoon became more difficult but we showed a lot of spirit. We lack many things in the game but the spirit is still there and has not been broken."


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