ON balance, this was probably a pretty good defeat for Sunderland.
Not a great one – a narrow 1-0 loss after scaring the life out of Manchester United would have been that.
But, considering the league leaders threatened to absolutely disassemble Sunderland for long periods in this game, escaping with the concession of just three and the scoring of one has to be seen as something of a result for Martin O’Neill’s men.
It means Sunderland will travel to the far more important game against Southampton this weekend with their confidence buffeted but not blown away.
And that in itself is probably the biggest thing to take out of a game which could so easily have ended in disaster for the visitors.
For rampant United – now seven wins in their last eight league games and hell-bent on reclaiming their title – this was Redemption: Part II.
Having beaten Manchester City in their own back yard the previous week – ironically enough with a late, late goal to ease the anguish of their last-gasp title loss last season; now they faced Sunderland with the chance to rub the Wearsiders’ noses in it for celebrating so gleefully United’s demise at the Stadium of Light last May.
Beating a team as good as City needed to be business – even for United; but beating Sunderland was to be a pleasure.
Sir Alex Ferguson had spoken openly last May about how United would not forget Sunderland fans’ disrespect, and talismanic striker Wayne Rooney had gone so far as to say that the one team he wanted to beat this season more than any other was Sunderland.
Thus the stage was set at the Theatre of Dreams, and more than 70,000 United fans took their seats in anticipation of watching, not so much a drama, as a serial killing.
Few could have blamed them for expecting a slaughter.
Apart from the difference in form – United having won 14 of their 17 league games this season; Sunderland just three of theirs – there was also the small matter of the Wearsiders having not won at Old Trafford since five years before 39-year-old Ryan Giggs was born.
Right from the start, in the manner they played, it felt like both sides understood the script – that United would win was a certainty, the only question was by how many.
United were confidence personified; Sunderland were an illustration of a side constantly playing the percentage game.
Perhaps the caution was understandable.
Even United’s bench was scary – Vidic, Scholes, Giggs, Hernandez and Welbeck waiting in the wings.
For their part, there was a makeshift feel to the Sunderland side with Danny Rose having failed a fitness test to join another full-back, Phil Bardsley, on the unavailable list.
O’Neill resisted the temptation to put Gardner at right-back, although he was forced to drop fellow midfielder to left-back.
He kept Gardner in midfield alongside Seb Larsson and that saw Carlos Cuellar moved out of central defence to the full-back role while Titus Bramble stepped into the heart of the back four, partnering former Red Devil John O’Shea, who was making his 300th Premier League appearance.
“We needed to be strong in midfield,” explained O’Neill afterwards. “Our strategy was dictated by wanting to keep recognised midfielders in their positions, which was why Carlos moved to full-back.”
The manager played his hand as well as he could, but it was no match for the aces at Sir Alex’s disposal, despite keeping the home team relatively quiet in the opening half-dozen minutes.
In the seventh minute, Ashley Young’s shot from the edge of the area was finger-tipped over the bar by Mignolet.
And a few minutes later an even juicier chance presented itself after a half-clearance by Fletcher fell to Patrice Evra directly in front of goal 17 yards out, only for the Frenchman to drive his shot inches over the goal frame when he should have hit the target.
Just when it looked as though Sunderland might get a toe-hold in the game though, they shot themselves in the foot.
Credit has to go to Robin van Persie for his 12th goal in 15 league appearances – when the ball reached him he reacted instantly, and with hardly any backlift, to stab a shot high into the goal from eight yards.
Trouble is, the ball should never have reached him.
Ashley Young did superbly to turn James McClean and Carlos Cuellar inside out on the left, but his cross was not a great one until O’Shea stuck a leg out awkwardly and deflected the ball to the Dutchman.
There’s irony here.
When Wes Brown and John O’Shea were signed from United by Sunderland, their arrival was hailed as another step up the ladder for the Black Cats in terms of the quality of their defence.
And yet, while there’s no doubting their pedigree, it was Brown who scored the own goal in the 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford last season and O’Shea’s gaffe that gave United that crucial opener at the weekend.
Having toyed with Sunderland before then, van Persie’s goal seemed to galvanise a team reminded of Rooney’s mission.
The Dutch striker could have extended the lead in the 17th minute when his header from a right-wing cross was flashing into the bottom corner until Mignolet scrambled it away diving to his left
United’s second goal came just two minutes after their first when Tom Cleverley, on the left, played a great one-two with Michael Carrick, sprinting on to the return pass on the left of goal and sweeping a curling shot around Mignolet and into the inside side-netting.
It was as good as goal as van Persie’s and set the scene for a rout.
But the fact that it didn’t arrive was largely due to the lung-bursting Rooney, who worked tirelessly all afternoon to put Sunderland to the sword but struggled to supply the coup de grace.
First, he screwed a shot inches wide when he seemed certain to score, after being set up by van Persie, then he headed Evra’s left-wing cross wide at the near post with the goal gaping.
Midway through the first half, Sunderland could have been four or five down.
But not only were they not out of the game yet, they could have got right back into it after James McClean’s good run in the 23rd minute, if the Irish winger hadn’t decided to try beating David De Gea from an impossible angle rather than pulling the ball back for the unmarked Steven Fletcher eight yards out.
Sunderland had other chances, the best of which was a 37th-minute effort from Stephane Sessegnon, whose powerful snapshot from the right of goal beat the United keeper but was headed instinctively over the bar by Evra.
Those moments were few and far between though as United passed the ball sweetly and intelligently, retaining possession well and always threatening to extend their lead.
It was a major relief for O’Neill’s men to reach half-time only two goals down, but that boost was tempered by the knowledge that they were to lose Fletcher during the interval after the Scotland international succumbed to a back injury.
Connor Wickham replaced Fletcher and again showed promise up front, especially as he was often left isolated at times.
United made a change at the same time, replacing Carrick with Paul Scholes, and when Ryan Giggs replaced Tom Cleverley just after the hour, it helped take much of the sting out of their attack, though it improved them defensively.
By the time Giggs arrived in the 63rd minute, his side had not long gone three goals up, with Rooney finally getting some rewards for his non-stop efforts.
The England striker had been thwarted again at the start of the second half ,when Bramble diverted his goal-bound shot up and onto the cross bar.
But he was not to be denied in the 59th minute when the lively van Persie hoodwinked both Cuellar and Bramble in the box, got past both and crossed from the left for Rooney to outwit both O’Shea and Colback and poke home at the far post.
United were well worth their lead – van Persie having gone close with a lob that drifted wide – but Sunderland had had sniffs, with Gardner getting in a shot, Wickham going close to hitting the target, and having gone three down they were emboldened rather than cowed.
Fraizer Campbell and Nemanja Vidic came on about the same time, midway through the second half in what looked on paper to be a mismatched contest.
But the former Manchester United striker turned the game in the 72nd minute when, after persistent attacks from Sunderland – sparked by Sessegnon’s long-range shot, turned around the post by De Gea – Campbell scored.
Sessegnon was the chief architect of the goal, chipping a loose ball over the United keeper for Campbell to head home a yard out at the far post.
But the United players did not help themselves, having switched off completely as the Benin international chased the ball on the left of the box.
The unexpected strike rattled United rather than rocked them and it’s fair to say there was never any danger of an upset.
But it wasn’t just a consolation goal because, a couple of minutes later, Campbell found himself unmarked in the area and might have done better with his cross or opted to go for goal himself.
And Sessegnon might have got the goal his efforts deserved in the dying minutes when debutant James McFadden, on for the last five minutes, rolled a ball across goal from the left which the striker got a touch to but could only watch it trickle along the goal-line.
That late surge gave United food for thought and Sunderland cause for optimism.
The defeats might continue to mount up for Sunderland at Old Trafford, but this one is unlikely to have any long-term effects on confidence.