ONLY the most fool-hardy predicted any spoils for Sunderland at Old Trafford, despite the evident boost emanating from victory against Reading.
But a spirited late comeback aside, the comprehensive way in which Sunderland were dispatched yesterday when a 3-1 scoreline largely flattered the visitors, just highlighted the uphill battle Martin O’Neill’s men face over the festive period to keep their noses above the bottom three.
It won’t get much easier for a Sunderland side who must still face Manchester City, Spurs and Liverpool before the Christmas trees come down.
This was a vintage display, particularly in the first half, from Manchester United, who clearly were intent on punishing Sunderland for the small-minded injustice they perceived they had suffered at the Stadium of Light on the final day of last season.
Sunderland couldn’t live with the Premier League leaders in those first 45 minutes.
The movement of United’s front two and midfield proved too much for the Wearsiders’ middle men, who were out-manoeuvred and more worryingly out-muscled by the rampant red juggernaut.
Circumstances had somewhat forced O’Neill into naming such an attack-minded line-up with two out-and-out wingers and two frontmen, rather than shutting up shop with five across midfield.
But without the presence of Lee Cattermole, the Black Cats were very much second best.
Had United boasted a 4-0 half-time lead, Sunderland couldn’t have complained as Wayne Rooney, most notably, scuffed two golden opportunities to increase the advantage.
But, as against Chelsea last weekend, the goals Sunderland conceded were soft ones and that will have been the element of defeat which most frustrated O’Neill.
Yes, there is no disgrace in being beaten at Old Trafford or being breached three times, but no team can afford to give Sir Alex Ferguson’s side a helping hand.
John O’Shea’s clearance for United’s opener was dreadful, Carlos Cuellar was caught ball-watching for the second and the Spaniard, along with Titus Bramble, was embarrassed for the third.
For a Sunderland side who built their five-game unbeaten start to the season on rock-solid defensive foundations, it has been a worrying turnaround.
But the plus point for Sunderland when it comes to gauging their prospects over the festive period, was that their spirit remained strong yesterday and there was no hint of a white flag.
As against Chelsea, Sunderland continued to battle to the end and had they boasted an element of fortune or precision on their final ball, could easily have made the finale much more intriguing by reducing the deficit to 3-2.
Sparked by another genuinely positive contribution from half-time substitute Connor Wickham and the lively Fraizer Campbell for an unfit Adam Johnson, Sunderland worried United during that final 30 minutes.
Perhaps that was a case of United taking their foot off the pedal.
But Sunderland deserve credit for their persistence after carving out far more opportunities in those final exchanges than their counterparts.
Although O’Neill was quick to dispel any talk of this game being a “no-lose” one, it was always going to be a case of any point being a bonus.
That they came away empty-handed is hardly a mortal blow.
Next weekend’s expedition to Southampton remains the most crucial of Sunderland’s remaining 2012 fixtures and that is the one where they cannot afford such a significant gulf with their opponents.
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