GRAEME ANDERSON: Crunch time at Sunderland after Manchester United defeat

Sunderland's Jozy Altidore is tackled by Michael Carrick.
Sunderland's Jozy Altidore is tackled by Michael Carrick.
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ANOTHER Premier League game under Kevin Ball. Another improved and impressive performance. Another defeat.

It is getting serious for Sunderland now.

And the fact that Mick McCarthy’s doomed 15-pointers had three points MORE at this stage of the 2006/07 season, should be enough to send a chill down the spine of every Sunderland fan.

Kevin Ball knows, of course, that Sunderland’s current side is far superior to the under-funded one which sank so ignominiously six years ago.

But so far this season, results have been in much the same vein as that former side – when they play poorly they lose, and when they play well they lose too.

The performance against Manchester United at the weekend, though, must give real heart to those who still believe Sunderland can turn this around.

They played with skill and spirit and huge heart to produce 45 minutes of resistance against the Premier League champions which allowed the home fans in the enormous crowd to enjoy the break.

And even though Sunderland went down to two superb second-half strikes from teenage talent Adnan Januzaj, they would know that against lesser sides they would have prevailed.

Now Sunderland face games against Swansea, Newcastle and Hull – all tricky in their own way but all winnable.

And Ball, for however long he may be in charge, must tell his troops that the season starts here, with league opposition coming up now far less formidable than they have faced in the interim head coach’s first two games.

Much had been made before Saturday’s game about United’s indifferent start under new boss David Moyes and how much a Champions League game in Ukraine on Wednesday might drain them.

But Moyes went into the match with a record of only one defeat to Sunderland in 16 games. And when you can make four changes to the reigning Premier League champions and bring in Wayne Rooney, Nani, Phil Jones and precocious debutant Januzak, there’s no need to worry too much about being on the back foot.

Sunderland, though, started the game in the brightest way possible, taking an early lead thanks to Craig Gardner’s instinctive finishing.

The 26-year-old was playing in central midfield, with Ball making two changes to the side beaten 3-1 by Liverpool.

Summer signings Valentin Roberge and Ondrej Celustka returned in defence, which saw Carlos Cuellar and Seb Larsson dropped to the bench and Gardner pressed forward into a 4-3-3 formation, with Adam Johnson on the left and Emanuele Giaccherini on the right of striker Jozy Altidore.

The plan worked a treat in those opening few minutes and the breakthrough moment came when the Italian burst past Patrice Evra and put in a low cross five minutes in.

It should have been comfortably dealt with by Jones, but he botched his clearance, driving the ball straight at Nemanja Vidic, who could not control it, and the alert Gardner nipped in to smash the loose ball across David De Gea into the keeper’s bottom right-hand corner from 10 yards out.

It was the perfect start for Sunderland and for Gardner – his first league goal from open play this year – and he gleefully slid towards the South West corner on his knees.

There was to be no resting on their laurels for Sunderland, though, with the game-plan based around prodigious work-rate and closing United down, particularly in the middle of the park.

That still did not stop United being dangerous – within a minute of going behind, Nani had turned on a shot from distance which bounced just wide of Keiren Westwood’s right post.

But Sunderland were pressuring constantly and, in the eighth minute, might have doubled their lead when Gardner robbed Jones and bore down on goal, only to be successfully tackled by the defender as he dallied over whether to go for goal himself or try to find the unmarked and onrushing Altidore.

By the time the agile Januzaj swivelled on a clever shot, fired narrowly wide, in the 18th minute, Sunderland fans were really getting into a game which was end to end.

Nani might have levelled in the 20th minute when Evra’s deep cross from the left reached him unmarked at the far post, but his side-footed volley back across goal was just wide.

But immediately beforehand the troublesome Altidore had forced Vidic to concede a free-kick which Giaccherini could not quite get over the wall.

United were playing some wonderfully well-oiled passing football, but they just could not prosper against Sunderland’s tenacity and only one of the saves of the season prevented the home team doubling their lead in the 34th minute.

A fine passing move of Sunderland’s own creation ended when Johnson whipped in a ball at pace from the left and Giaccherini met it at the near post with a perfect header which was flying just inside the post before De Gea reacted instinctively, flinging himself full-length to finger-tip wide.

It was a breath-taking effort, a world-class save – and just Sunderland’s luck these days!

Even so, they might still have got a second goal just before the break when Johnson surged into the box down the left, rode a tackle, had a shot blocked and then pulled the ball back for the unmarked Giaccherini, who was favourite to score but could not keep his shot down from eight yards.

It was all-action stuff.

Nani powered in a rising shot from a narrow angle in the 40th minute which Westwood successfully blocked.

But with ex-Manchester United man John O’Shea the pick of the back four, organising his defence well and restricting the visitors’ frequent forays upfield in terms of clear goalscoring opportunities, Sunderland saw the game through to the break.

The only question, after a furiously high-tempo opening 45 minutes, was could Sunderland keep that intensity up?

It was always likely to be a big ask. Sadly, it proved to beyond them.

After a decent opening 10 minutes, Sunderland found themselves on level terms when Januzaj exploited a moment of catching the home side flat-footed.

The 18-year-old, 30 yards from goal, passed the ball out to Evra on his left and when a low centre came swiftly into the box, the Belgian had ghosted forward to drive a low shot from 12 yards just inside Westwood’s right-hand post.

Sunderland wilted and United would have got a quick-fire second had Westwood not reacted well to a firmly struck shot from Robin van Persie.

But just after the hour, United did go ahead and once against it was the teenager who did the damage.

A centre from the right was only half-headed clear by O’Shea and Januzaj, on the left-hand edge of the area, struck a spectacular first-time volley across Westwood and into the bottom left corner of the keeper’s goal.

It felt like game over and, as it turned out, it was, though Sunderland never gave up battling.

Despite the admirable intent, they understandably began to tire and struggled to make any headway against United’s rearguard.

Ball made all three substitutions in a bid to add fresh impetus.

But the closest either side came to another goal was when United sub Antonio Valencia went on a great run in the 88th minute and released van Persie in a one-on-one with Westwood, with the Dutchman – almost inexplicably for him – firing wide.

Five minutes were added on at the end and even then Sunderland were still battling for a point – Westwood going up for two late corners.

At the final whistle though, the game goes down as just another cross in the defeats box – five in a row now.

Yet what is worth pointing is that though Sunderland were beaten, they were far from broken.

Ball has overseen an improvement in performances that has been heartening – but now it becomes utterly essential that those performances are converted into points.

The trio of opportunities lying dead ahead of them could prove to be the defining phase of the season.