If it’s not over until the Fat Lady sings, then she’s definitely warming up her vocal chords around the Stadium of Light.
Back-to-back defeats in the past week have seen Sunderland remain rooted to the foot of the Premier League table, and time is running out. The Black Cats are now winless in six and have failed to score in that period, too.
It makes worrying reading for supporters, many of whom are already resigned to relegation. While in previous years there has been a rally around this point, this year there just seems to be a quiet acceptance of the club’s fate.
But while it’s still mathematically possible to stay up, hope remains. If Sunderland want to stand any chance of playing Premier League football, three points this weekend are essential.
Their visitors are Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United. Not the force of old, granted, but still a difficult proposition for David Moyes’ men.
Former Manchester United duo John O’Shea and Adnan Januzaj will be unavailable for Sunderland this weekend, with the latter ineligible against his parent club while the former has been granted compassionate leave by the club.
There was a boost for Moyes in midweek with both Lee Cattermole and Victor Anichebe deemed fit enough to take places in the match day squad against Leicester, and they could feature again against the Red Devils.
However, Sunderland still remain without the injured quartet of Duncan Watmore, Steven Pienaar, Paddy McNair and Jan Kirchhoff, with Moyes staying the German is unlikely to feature again this season.
United, meanwhile, are expected to be without captain Wayne Rooney and midfielder Ashley Young, although Antonio Valencia may return.
The visitors will also be without Juan Mata, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling.
What should Sunderland expect?
Inconsistency has been the name of the game for Manchester United this season. While Jose Mourinho’s men have, at times, dazzled and looked every bit a title contender, any bid for glory has been thwarted by inconsistent performances and a lack of potency. While a strike force of Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Antony Martial and others seems tantalising on paper, they have failed to deliver on the pitch.
Fans have grown frustrated with United’s lack of goals, but it’s important to remember that Mourinho is currently guiding his side through a 20-game unbeaten run in the Premier League. They don’t concede many goals and Sunderland will find them difficult to break down. The Black Cats will need to ensure they do what they haven’t done of late and take the chances that are presented to them, as they may be few and far between.
Where can Sunderland exploit?
His return in midweek seems timely, as Cattermole could prove vital in this encounter. United’s midfield is based largely on flair, with the likes of Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan looking to create chances for those further up the field.
While they are undoubtedly talented and technically gifted players, they might come unstuck against some good old-fashioned grit (or ‘Britishness’, if you want to take Moyes’ line). Cattermole will no doubt be told to restrict the actions of Pogba et al in the centre of the park, and if he can do that then it may prove a base for Sunderland to get forward. The ex-Middlesbrough midfielder could prove vital in both stopping any threat from the visitors going forward and in helping his team to find the net. If can control Pogba, then there may be opportunities for Sunderland to exploit.
Key battle – Zlatan Ibrahimovic v Lamine Kone
Love him or loathe him, Ibrahimovic is certainly a handful and will need to be guarded carefully this weekend. Kone will play a key part in that, as he may be the only Sunderland defender capable of coming anywhere near to matching the Swede’s strength. If Ibrahimovic gets a sniff off Sunday he’ll take it, so Kone will need to make sure any chances coming his way are quickly snuffed out.
Last time they met – Manchester United 3-1 Sunderland
The two sides last met on Boxing Day at Old Trafford, where Fabio Borini’s late effort proved only a consolation after strikes from Blind and Ibrahimovic, along with a scorpion kick from Mkhitaryan, handed United victory.
Sunderland need points, but it’s difficult to see past the visitors this weekend. They may have been struggling for goals of late, but they could well find the floodgates well and truly open at the Stadium of Light.
Prediction – Sunderland 0-3 Manchester United