Manchester United continue their Premier League campaign on Saturday when they travel to the north-east for a lunchtime affair with Sunderland AFC. This fixture last season is a bitter memory for United. In case you forgot, the Stadium of Light was scene of shocked looks on the faces of Sir Alex Ferguson and his players soon after the match when news spread that Sergio Aguero had scored a goal at the death to win the title for Manchester City. And of course, many Reds didn't take too kindly to the resulting Poznan mockery by Sunderland supporters.
These two side have met once already this season. In the reverse league fixture in December at Old Trafford, goals from Robin van Persie, Tom Cleverley, and Wayne Rooney helped the home side to a 3-1 defeat of the visitors.
Form Guide: United enter the weekend 15 points clear of City in the title race with 9 fixtures to go. Just prior to the recent international break, the Reds defeated Reading in a league tie, drew level with Chelsea in a FA Cup quarter-final fixture, and were controversially eliminated by Real Madrid in the Champions League.
Team News: United seemingly have a fully fit squad. [Full Team News Report]
Form Guide: Martin O'Neill's side are in a fight for Premier League survival. They currently sit 15th in the table and four points clear of the drop zone. However, their recent form is poor as they haven't won a match in their past 7 seven outings.
Team News: Steven Fletcher, Carlos Cuellar, Lee Cattermole, and Wes Brown are all unavailable while Stephane Sessegnon and and David Vaughan could be injury concerns as well.
United: With a fully healthy squad, and with Chelsea ahead on Monday, projecting a starting XI for this match is mostly a futile exercise. Furthermore, there will be consideration of the 13 players that just returned from international duty when manager Sir Alex Ferguson tries to decide on his selection choices for both Sunderland and Chelsea.
In goal, David de Gea is the clear No.1 but if he's given a rest, then Anders Lindegaard will feature. In central-defense, any two of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, and Phil Jones are possible. At right-back, Rafael is first-choice. If he's rested with Chelsea in mind, then either Smallng or Jones could deputise.
In central-midfield, Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley are generally first-choice. However, if both are rested after England duty, then the likes of Anderson, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, and Jones are possible.
In attack, any of Antonio Valencia, Nani, Ashley Young, Giggs, Danny Welbeck, or Shinji Kagawa could feature out wide while the latter two, Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, and Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) are possible up front.
Who will start? Your guess is as good as mine.
Sunderland: Simon Mignolet is the No.1 and the back four protecting him is expected to be John O'Shea and Titus Bramble in central-defense and Danny Rose and Craig Gardner as the full-backs. Phil Bardsley may be possible at right-back, though.
Recently, O'Neill has been deploying his side in a 4-4-2 shape in order to accommodate both Danny Graham and Fletcher up front. However, with the latter injured, it's possible the Sunderland manager reverts back to the shape he's used for most of the season -- 4-4-1-1. If that happens, expect Graham as the lead striker with Sessegnon in behind him as support. Out wide, Sessegnon is possible but Adam Johnson and Sebastian Larsson are most likely. James McClean has an outside shot to feature as well. In central-midfield, Vaughan -- if healthy -- is anticipated alongside Alfred N'Diaye. Larsson and Jack Colback are also possible in the center of the park.
* What will Sunderland's shape and approach be?: As just mentioned, 4-4-2 has been the system used by O'Neill as of late. However, with Fletcher out, a 4-4-1-1 is likely against United while a conservative 4-5-1 is possible as well. In our interview with Sunderland fansite 'Roker Report' this week, they discussed some of the recent perils of the 4-4-2 shape:
'A move away from 4-4-2 will certainly be a welcome one as this recent experiment from O'Neill has failed miserably. We were being overran in the middle of the park week-in-week-out and our creative players in the wide areas created the square root of buggar all for the forward two - it was a tactical move that proved to be nothing other than an absolute disaster.'
In the 4-4-1-1, where Sunderland tend to defend with two flat banks of four when out of possession, they have proven to be vulnerable whether they press or not. At times this season, particularly against lesser Premier League sides, O'Neill has instructed his side to press and try to win the ball high up the pitch in order to ignite counterattacks closer to the opposition's goal. However, the lack of pace for most of Sunderland's central-defenders have left them vulnerable when balls are played in behind. When these central-defenders sit a bit deeper, then the space between their lines opens up. Either way, Sunderland will likely be vulnerable due to the pace of United's attackers or because of Rooney's and Kagawa's dangerous abilities when operating in the space between the lines.
Perhaps then, O'Neil will opt for a 4-5-1 -- or more specifically, a deep-defending 4-1-4-1 -- in order to clog up the attacking space for United. A 0-0 or 1-1 draw would be a lovely result for the Black Cats while a narrow defeat wouldn't be terrible as well because it would protect their goal differential. This is something worth considering because of Sunderland's fight against relegation.
* United need to adequately defend in the wide areas: Sunderland are a fairly basic side: they try to stay organized and disciplined defensively and when the ball is won, they attempt to attack down the flanks. Only two clubs in the Premier League -- Reading and Everton -- spend less time passing the ball in the middle third of the pitch.
Ferguson's selection choices are difficult to predict for this match because of the mentioned Chelsea tie on Monday. Nonetheless, no matter which players are chosen, it will be important that they adequately defend in the wide areas. United have tended to play a bit more narrow at times this season, at least in comparison to past years -- whether that is due to natural wide players being dropped because of form or because of the diamond midfield used at times -- so it will be important that they don't offer Sunderland's wingers and full-backs too much time and space on the ball. They need to be closed down quickly in order to prevent crosses from being sent in. Fletcher being out though, does minimize Sunderland's goalscoring threat from the aerial route.
Johnson hasn't lived up to expectations this season, however, he's certainly a threat out wide on his day. Near the penalty area, he's a threat to score from distance while he's also (kind of) capable of whipping in dangerous crosses. If Sessegnon is out wide -- or drifts there from an initial central position -- he has the trickery to take on and beat defenders. Larsson, of course, if deployed on the right, has the can-opener of a right foot that is capable of incredible curling precision. Rose -- one of the outstanding Black Cats this season -- is also a danger when he gets forward from his left-back position. Snuff out Sunderland's chances created from out wide, and you pretty much nullify most of their attacking threat.
KO: 12:45pm GMT, 8:45am EST | Stadium of Light
Live TV: Sky Sports 2 (U.K.), ESPN2 (U.S.)
Referee: Kevin Friend
Odds: Sunderland 9/2, Draw 11/4, Manchester United 8/13