Keiren Westwood proves his worth with show of defiance

Keiren Westwood.
Keiren Westwood.
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FEW could begrudge Steve Bruce’s decision to keep faith with Simon Mignolet in the opening skirmishes of the Premier League campaign.

Mignolet had distinguished himself in bridging the chasm of class between the Belgian and English leagues in his maiden season on these shores, while Bruce was understandably wary to immediately flood his side with summer signings.

Other than his positional error, which admittedly had telling repercussions, in August’s Wear-Tyne derby, the Belgian custodian has done little wrong this season.

With Mignolet in reliable mood and Craig Gordon taking baby-steps on the comeback trail, question marks inevitably had to be raised over whether Bruce had unnecessarily swelled his goalkeeping ranks with the acquisition of Keiren Westwood.

But in just 130 minutes of league action in red and white, Westwood has justified both the minimal outlay on his out-of-contract signature, plus his reputation as the best goalkeeper outside the top flight.

The Republic of Ireland international’s block to deny Darren Bent a goal on his Stadium of Light return last week immediately endeared him to Wearside.

Yet the save still owed plenty to Bent losing his cool and producing a finish with little conviction.

Nothing could take the shine of Westwood’s reflexes on Saturday though.

The second half of his double-save to deny Patrice Evra was Montgomery-esque and capped a full debut which showed no signs of trepidation at an Old Trafford suitably buoyed by a week of reminiscing over Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign.

The stunning tip-over as the ball angled into the roof of the net maintained Sunderland’s interest until the last kick and wasn’t a one-off either – Westwood showing similar agility to block Nani’s piledriver towards the near post from a seemingly impossible angle.

And, from the resulting corner, the former Coventry man had little chance as Wes Brown’s header angled past him after the skipper-for-the-day got his body position wrapped up in knots on his Manchester United return.

Goalkeepers cannot be judged on their shot-stopping alone though, particularly in an era when few top-flight stoppers are shamed by efforts trundling past them.

Westwood needed to prove his mettle by showing suitable dominance of his territory and in that aspect he succeeded – punching confidently when either Darren Fletcher or Javier Hernandez were hurtling down his neck.

But, as Old Trafford bows go, Westwood couldn’t have wished for a more routine afternoon, as the champions laboured in attack.

Sunderland stoppers from bygone days have needed to almost morph into superheroes for the Black Cats to earn something for their efforts against the reigning top-flight champions.

But there was none of that on Saturday.

Other than the goal and his double save, there was little to worry Westwood as too many harmless shots and crosses routinely drifted into his midriff.

Unbalanced by the presence of Wayne Rooney in central midfield, United struggled to muster any semblance of tempo and there were precious few occasions when the hosts got in behind Sunderland’s backline to threaten Westwood’s goal.

Hernandez and a subdued Danny Welbeck never provided a platform under the watchful supervision of Brown and Michael Turner, while Kieran Richardson’s pace ensured that Nani’s involvement was limited.

Neither was there any room in the middle of the park for United to build up a head of steam, where Lee Cattermole, Jack Colback and subsequently David Meyler doggedly robbed their opposite numbers of possession.

Sunderland inevitably missed the more creative presence of the injured David Vaughan, yet replacement Cattermole drove Bruce’s men on in the second half when legs inevitably began to tire under the weight of harrying United’s key figures.

Perhaps, though, that made Westwood’s display all the more laudable.

United barely mustered a head of steam, yet, on the odd occasions when the ex-Manchester City trainee was tested, he was braced to subdue the danger.

It shouldn’t be a surprise given scouts flocked to the Ricoh Arena last season in search of Westwood’s signature as the weeks ticked down until he became a Bosman.

But until and potentially beyond the return of Gordon and Mignolet, Sunderland’s goalmouth is encouragingly in good hands.