FROM a Sunderland point of view, yesterday was a surreal afternoon – Martin O’Neill’s men reduced to bit-part players on their own stage.
A sell-out crowd had been drawn to the Stadium of Light by a mighty showdown – not between the two teams on the pitch, but between Sunderland’s visitors and their Manchester rivals at the Etihad: the destiny of the Premier League title at stake.
Sunderland, having failed to win any of their last 17 encounters with Manchester United, were expected to lose to the defending champions, and duly did – their performance almost an irrelevance to anyone outside their own support.
And long before the end, when Sunderland clearly lacked the impetus or drive to hurt United, who threatened to extend their lead at any minute, it was almost as if all 22 players were playing with one foot ball on the ball and one ear on the latest news from Manchester City’s game against QPR.
The final whistle failed to end the oddness of the day, United celebrating the victory for only a few seconds, knowing City’s 2-2 injury-time equaliser was not enough before hearing, again surreally, that the Blues had astonishingly scored a SECOND injury-time goal and snatched the title from them.
The reigning Premier League champions had finished their season top of the league, but lost their title two minutes after their own season ended.
They were worthy losers – their young players good but not consistent enough; their old players outstanding, but not able to do it on their own; Wayne Rooney their only obvious world-class talent.
Too many water-carriers, not enough match-winners.
John O’Shea had once been a water-carrier in a United team of outstanding individual talents, but this season has had to cope, for the first time in his career, with being a star player expected to provide proficiency rather than efficiency.
It was O’Shea who led Sunderland out yesterday in the absence of injured captain Lee Cattermole and was deployed, unusually, at left-back as Martin O’Neill made three changes to the side which lost at Fulham.
Out went Matt Kilgallon, Cattermole and Nicklas Bendtner; in came Titus Bramble, playing his first game since Boxing Day, David Vaughan and Fraizer Campbell.
Campbell was on the right of a five-man midfield and United lined up in similar fashion, but the defensive-minded formation failed to work for the Black Cats and it was only when they put the striker up front later in the game that Sunderland started to have any joy going forward.
Under an overcast sky and in blustery conditions, Sunderland started well enough producing the first couple of efforts on goal – a tame effort from McClean in the second minute and a more ambitious one, curled in from distance by Vaughan in the sixth minute, which extended David de Gea.
Sunderland, though, were flattering to deceive.
It was clear by body language and movement that they lacked confidence and conviction and, gradually, United reeled them in.
In the 18th minute, Giggs’ corner from the left was headed inches over the bar by defender Phil Jones.
Then, two minutes later, United took the lead through the sort of sloppy goal O’Neill will be desperate to eliminate next season.
Jones, on the right, was given all the time in the world to receive the ball, look up, and arrow a diagonal ball over Sunderland’s centre-halves towards the the far post, where Rooney had completely lost marker Bramble, and was free to nod just inside Mignolet’s right-hand post from four yards out.
United could have extended their lead either side of the half-hour.
But Mignolet pulled off a spectacular save from an instinctive Giggs shot with the outside of his left boot, after a mistake by Vaughan, in the 28th minute.
And then Rooney teased a free-kick in the Sunderland “D” on to and over the crossbar after being felled by Bramble’s late challenge.
Rooney’s skill for that shot was evident, but he was out of luck in the 33rd minute when Valencia skinned O’Shea down the right and played the ball inside to Young, who drove it goalwards and Rooney just couldn’t quite turn it in from six yards out, straight in front of goal.
O’Shea had struggled against Valencia all game and was replaced just before half-time, feeling his calf, to be replaced by Ahmed Elmohamady who, though erratic, was more mobile and pacey.
Sunderland offered little in the way of attacking threat in that opening half, but they had a great chance to level in the 35th minute when Craig Gardner fed Stephane Sessegnon 20 yards from goal.
The Benin international popped a ball over the top, the offside flag rightly staying down as it reached Campbell, but, with the goal at his mercy, he stiff-legged his shot a yard wide.
From that point until the break, Sunderland made a fist of it, and though they went into the break trailing, they had at least avoided United getting out of sight.
Any hopes O’Neill had of Sunderland getting back into the game upon the resumption, though, must have evaporated within minutes of the restart as United turned the screw,
Mignolet immediately had to dive bravely at the feet of Rooney to prevent a slick passing move ending with a goal.
But the Belgian produced a far more eye-catching stop in the 48th minute when Ashley Young dinked a ball over the top and Mignolet pulled off a fantastic block to deny Rooney’s powerful, goal-bound effort.
By this stage, tension was building around the ground as fans, listening to news from the Etihad, heard QPR’s Joey Barton had been sent off with the scoreline 1-1 and United were top of the table with less than half-an-hour of the campaign remaining.
Minutes before that, Jones missed a good chance at the far post from Ashley Young’s free-kick as the one-way traffic continued.
Sunderland managed a decent spell after that miss but created nothing of note and they required a great block by Gardner on Young’s goalbound 59th-minute shot to keep their hopes of pinching something alive.
In the 65th minute, news came through that 10-man QPR had gone ahead, just as Scholes earned a free-kick outside the box from Michael Turner’s foul.
United could not make it 2-0 from the set-piece, but they would have known that if they could confirm their victory against Sunderland they suddenly had every chance of another title.
With 15 minutes remaining and Sunderland not really producing much of a threat, O’Neill brought on striker Connor Wickham for midfielder Vaughan, but United continued to dominate and, in the 76th minute, Scholes volleyed against Mignolet’s right-hand post and the keeper got back up off the ground to tip Giggs’ thunderous follow-up over the crossbar.
As United closed in on what would have been their sweetest and most dramatic Premier League title win ever, Sunderland barely featured.
United killed off the game in the way they’re able to – passing the ball well, dropping the tempo, taking the sting out the contest.
And the only chance created before the whistle went fell the way of the visitors – Rooney getting up from a Bramble foul to hit the outside of Mignolet’s left-hand post from the free-kick.
Rooney finished as the matchwinner – his 27 Premier League goals this season the best return of his career.
But just as United were acknowledging a victory completed after three minutes time added on, there came news that City had turned their game around from being 2-1 down after 90 minutes to emerging as 3-2 victors.
Sunderland fans milked the moment, taunting United fans by mimicing City supporters’ trademark backs-to-the-pitch Poznan goal celebration.
But the footnote to the greatest ever Premier League title battle was that Sunderland closed the campaign with a record of only two wins in the last 15 games of the season – relegation form effectively.
And while United lost the title on the day, Sunderland lost the little matter of £1.6million in prize money as they dropped from 11th to 13th.
In the grand scheme of things, what’s most important to Sunderland is that they stayed up this season – something which was beginning to unlikely when O’Neill took over a side which looked to have lost its way.
But quality signings are needed this summer if Sunderland are to compete in the top half, rather than the bottom half, next season.