I'm just grateful that Lee Cattermole didn't break Wayne Rooney here.
I suppose there's always hope. It's fairly simple -- we need a result versus Sunderland on Sunday that betters Manchester City's in their home tie versus Queens Park Rangers. If City win though, the title is theirs for the first time since 1968 -- unless Manchester United miraculously overcome City's +8 goal differential advantage. It would be a fine timing if Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) broke out of his goalscoring slump by bagging a hat-trick of hat-tricks. Wayne Rooney should feel free to help the cause by contributing a brace of braces. A beautiful Ashley Young curler and a Paul Scholes wonder-strike from distance would be tremendous as well. Is all of that too much to ask for?
Form Guide: Two wins from the past five outings. Ugh. The defeat by City two weekends ago (it was actually on a Monday -- but you know what I mean) at the Etihad will prove to be the title-decider if they go on to defeat QPR as expected on Sunday. Perhaps though, it was the 4-4 draw versus Everton three weekends ago, where United blew a late two-goal lead, that ends up being the match that cost us the title. Technically, all draws and defeats are equally weighted in the table but the disappointments versus City and Everton feel decisive on an emotional level at the moment. United's most recent match was a comfortable 2-0 defeat of Swansea City last weekend.
Team News: Lots of really good players are unavailable for this Sunderland encounter: Chris Smalling, Danny Welbeck, Jonny Evans, Anderson, Paul Pogba, Nemanja Vidic, Darren Fletcher, and Cristiano Ronaldo. Everyone but the latter is due to either injury or illness -- Cristiano was simply sold for bags and bags of money that went straight to the bank as interest payments or into the pockets of the Glazers. (Full Team News Report)
Form Guide: The sacking of Steve Bruce and the hiring of Martin O'Neill certainly revitalized the club. However, after O'Neill's splendid revival of the Black Cats, their form has dipped massively in recent months. They have won only once in their last 11 league contests. Sunderland's most recent match was a 2-1 away defeat by Fulham last weekend.
Team News: Sebastian Larsson and Kieran Richardson have been ruled out for this tie while Wes Brown is a doubt as well. Connor Wickham has an ankle knock but he's expected to be available for selection.
With Smalling, Evans, and Vidic all unavailable, that leaves only Phil Jones as a viable option to partner Rio Ferdinand in central-defense. Jones sliding inside likely means that Rafael will feature at right-back. Patrice Evra is expected at left-back while David de Gea will be between the posts at the Stadium of Light. Scholes -- in possibly his last appearance for the club -- and Michael Carrick are the first-choice central-midfield duo and they'll likely be flanked by Young on the left and Antonio Valencia on the right. Nani is in contention as well for either flank. Rooney and Chicharito are anticipated up front.
There appears to be a goalkeeper controversy at Sunderland as any of Simon Mignolet, Craig Gordon, Keiren Westwood are possible to start. In central defense, Matthew Kilgallon and Michael Turner are the expected pairing but Titus Bramble may be in contention as well. Phil Bardsley is expected at left-back as is John O'Shea at right-back. In the center of the park, Lee Cattermole and Jack Colback are the anticipated the duo while James McClean and Craig Garnder are probable as the wide attackers. Nicklas Bendtner will probably be selected over Ji Dong-won as the lead striker while Stephane Sessegnon will be in a withdrawn role.
TACTICAL PREVIEW & KEYS
* Sunderland's approach: O'Neill's side is content to absorb pressure, defend with two compact banks of four, and then break into space through the pace and dribbling ability of McClean and Sessegnon. Sunderland's average of 44.4% possession is fourth bottom in the league and that number continually dropped as the season wore on under their new manager. The central-midfielders sit relatively close to the back four and the out ball is usually out wide to the wingers when they surge forward during transitions. From here, the typical attacking moves are either a direct one where a winger whips in crosses from the wide areas or Sessegnon's movement finding pockets of space for him to exploit with his passing and dribbling ability.
The most likely pattern to the match might be this: United control the match through patient build-up play -- where they look to get their full-backs forward as well -- and possession, United look for pockets to probe in attack against Sunderland's well organized banks of four, and on the occasions that possession is lost, O'Neill's look to counterattack quickly into open space. Sir Alex Ferguson's men will certainly be looking for goals so this potential contrast in tactics from the two sides may produce an open game.
* Rafael and Evra must be wary of not being caught out: As just mentioned, United's full-backs -- likely to be Evra and Rafael in this match -- will be brought forward when attacking moves are being built from the back through the four defenders and the two central-midfielders. The obvious vulnerability is that Evra and Rafael could be caught out when Sunderland quickly transition after winning the ball. If the full-backs decide to get ahead of the ball, they must be nearly certain that possession is safe when they motor forward. If these players are positioned too high up the pitch when United are in danger of losing possession -- such as when Sunderland are in a situation to quickly close down their counterparts or when United's midfielders attempt a risky pass -- the home side will be able to hit United in the space behind their full-backs. This will be the exact sort of counterattack that O'Neill will be emphasizing his team to look for.
It's perfectly fine for United's full-backs to be brave and bold in marauding forward, but they must be intelligent about it. It's very likely that Rafa was dropped these past two weekends due to his poor positioning when we gave up 4 goals to Everton. Gardner will likely be tucked in slightly on the right side of their attack -- and Evra's -- so this may be less of a danger on that side. In turn, the space up the touchline will be inviting for the Frenchman. McClean though, is a direct threat and his pace and dribbling will cause problems if Rafa isn't positioned well. This may be Fergie's biggest worry ahead of the match.
* United need to switch the ball: Sunderland's back four will be narrow when out of possession and they will sway almost mechanically when United patiently ping the ball around. United can use their organization and tightness against them though. Scholes, more often than not, is lined up slightly left of center while Valencia is always near the right touchline waiting to receive. When the ball is patiently swung to the left and Sunderland's left-back -- probably Bardsley -- drifts in to keep gaps narrow, Scholes can look to receive so that he can arrow one of his trademark long diagonal balls out to Valencia. By switching play so quickly, Valencia may have space to take on his marker and when Sunderland are scrambling to re-organize, gaps may open up for the likes of Chicharito and Rooney to run through -- our Ecuadorian winger typically can find them. United's best creator at the moment is Valencia so feeding him the ball as often as possible is key. Switching the ball quickly though from left to right with precise long diagonal balls may be a way to open up a well-structured Sunderland side.
KO: 3:00pm BST, 10:00am EST | Stadium of Light
TV: Sky Sports 2 (U.K.), FX (U.S.A.)
Referee: Howard Webb
Odds: Sunderland 7/1, Draw 4/1, Manchester United 4/9