Sunderland-Man Utd focus: Chance for Cats to rock Red Devils

Santiago Vergini looks set to make his second debut for Sunderland tomorrow
Santiago Vergini looks set to make his second debut for Sunderland tomorrow
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THE FINAL pieces of the transfer jigsaw were on the agenda when Gus Poyet sat down with Ellis Short at the Academy of Light this week.

Any subsequent arrivals at the Stadium of Light before the September 1 deadline are unlikely to exceed three now.

Presuming those last bits of business are completed, Sunderland can reflect on a decent summer of business.

For this window at least, Poyet has begun to shape the Black Cats more to his own tastes – specific players for specific positions, rather than the supermarket sweep recruitment from 12 months ago.

But for Sunday’s counterpart Louis van Gaal, this week has provided a brutal lesson in the size of the project he faces to rejuvenate an ailing Manchester United.

Yes, the opening day of the season is hardly an accurate barometer of what is to come.

But United’s one-paced, defensively naive performance against Swansea was far too reminiscent of so many displays from last season. Perhaps it wasn’t all down to David Moyes after all...

Van Gaal is clearly battling back to arrest the decline; Argentine defender Marcos Rojo potentially making his debut at the Stadium of Light after completing his £16million move from Sporting Lisbon this week.

The possible return of fit-again Robin van Persie to the starting XI on Sunday will also be a major boost to van Gaal.

But the aura has gone.

That spirit of fear which accompanied United under Sir Alex Ferguson has drifted away.

Even looking at the United team-sheet, the lack of figures prominent on the world stage or leaders in the manner of a Roy Keane is immediately evident.

Until van Gaal has time – and plenty of it – to recruit more quality and drill the players at his disposal, United will be vulnerable.

As a result, there is a huge opportunity for Sunderland this weekend.

Surely, given the bulk of the side experienced the elation which came with victories at United and Chelsea over the final month of last season, Poyet’s men will not be daunted by the prospect of facing one of the Premier League’s heavyweights in their opening home game.

Admittedly, Sunderland will need to make significant improvements from the side which was too sloppy for too much of their opening day draw at The Hawthorns.

The ball retention which Poyet craves will need to be as slick as Swansea’s was last Saturday.

But the likely return of Santiago Vergini – or even Billy Jones, who has been back in full training this week – should strengthen the Black Cats’ defensive resolve.

The inclusion of either right-back will allow Wes Brown to return to the heart of Sunderland’s defence alongside John O’Shea at the expense of Valentin Roberge.

The reunion of the former United pair will be a major boost.

Van Persie may not be fully fit, but his record against Sunderland stands at eight goals in 13 games, while Wayne Rooney was one of the few United players to come out of the Swansea defeat with much credit.

Poyet needs the understanding and solidity which generally stems from the O’Shea and Brown double act.

But that is likely to be the only change to the starting XI.

Perhaps there is a case for Costel Pantilimon to make his Sunderland debut after Vito Mannone’s nervy display against the Baggies.

Perhaps Will Buckley could offer a more natural fit out wide than Connor Wickham.

And perhaps Jordi Gomez is a contender for a starting spot after his positive contribution from the bench last weekend.

But Poyet will be wary of making wholesale changes at this stage.

The head coach will believe that the likes of Wickham, Steven Fletcher, Adam Johnson and summer signing Jack Rodwell – who doubtless will have benefited from an hour last weekend – can pick the holes in United’s back three.

On the evidence of the Swansea defeat, there will be gaps there.

If Sunderland can show the ruthlessness of the United of old, then the Black Cats will begin their home fixtures with a bang.

Verdict: Draw