Manchester United will be intent on setting about closing the increasing gap that exists between themselves and the Champions League places when they travel to a Sunderland side that needs points in their battle for survival.
Although they are still very much playing catch-up, Sam Allardyce’s men are sure to have been encouraged by their most recent displays, where they were unfortunate not to hold title-chasing Manchester City and then came from two goals behind to earn a terrific draw away to Liverpool, so there is plenty to build on. With several January signings beginning to bed in and give the squad a greater balance, the Black Cats are now playing with a lot more belief.
And it helps to have a regular goalscorer in Jermain Defoe, whose presence gives his side a very realistic chance of escaping the drop. The former England striker showed superb finishing ability to level things up at Anfield and he will definitely give the two Man Utd centre-backs no time to rest easily here, while Dame N’Doye carries menace alongside him. If John O’Shea and his defensive colleagues are compact and give little away, then Sunderland certainly have the firepower to come away with a positive result.
In the build up to Man Utd’s last outing at Chelsea, manager Louis van Gaal had to deal with more rumours about his future and also moved to dismiss suggestions from captain Wayne Rooney that the team has been given licence to play with more freedom. Whether it was freedom or just mere confidence, they performed strongly in West London and were just minutes away from claiming an impressive victory which they perhaps just about deserved over the piece.
But a defensive slip from Daley Blind proved costly and meant that Jesse Lingard’s wonderful acrobatic shot would not settle the encounter in their favour and leaves them with a massive uphill struggle to finish in the top four, which is not acceptable for a club of this stature. It will not get any easier either, with United set to begin their Europa League campaign in the coming week, and this will be a major test against a side fighting for their lives.
Winger Adam Johnson was sacked by Sunderland on Thursday, and of the players that remain, they are without Jeremain Lens, Younes Kaboul and Duncan Watmore. On the bright side, Fabio Borini has recovered from a virus.
Phil Jones has suffered a setback for Man Utd after he was injured playing for the club’s U-21 side. They remain unable to call upon Marcos Rojo, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Antonio Valencia, Luke Shaw and Ashley Young.
Played for both – Jonathan Evans: The Northern Ireland international came through the youth system at Man Utd and eventually became a regular at centre-back over several seasons before he left in the summer of 2015. He scored four goals in 131 Premier League games for the Red Devils, but his first taste of top-flight football came in a loan spell with Sunderland 2008 as he played 15 times to help the club avoid relegation.