Club Focus – Sunderland – All eyes on the Stadium of Light as Manchester United come to town

Many pundits are suggesting that the fate of the title depends on whether or not Chelsea can go to Liverpool and win. They apparently forget that later that day the Red Devils travel to a stadium in which only two visiting sides have managed to take full rewards this season.

Sunderland are unbeaten at home in 2010 and one of the characteristics of Steve Bruce’s tenure so far, is that the Stadium of Light is beginning to regain its reputation as a formidable challenge to away sides. Only Chelsea in the opening home game of the season and Aston Villa, back in December, have beaten the Mackems on their own patch. United will be met with fierce resistance and a sell-out crowd hungry to see their side continue their excellent recent form. It is also their final home game this season and the Mackem fans will undoubtedly look forward to a match with a key end of season narrative that has nothing to do with them. In a weekend in which conspiracy theorists are likely to have a field day, Steve Bruce reiterated this week he will grant his former club no favours and anyone who doubts the Wearsider’s credentials should watch a video of their trip to Old Trafford earlier this season. The Black Cats travelled to Manchester off the back of a similar run and battered United for ninety minutes. They were only half a minute from taking away a surprise three points until the home sides resilience kicked in and an Anton Ferdinand own-goal gave Sunderland supporters the novelty of leaving Old Trafford feeling like they had just dropped two points.

The home side are likely to again field a positive line-up and will look to attack Sir Alex Ferguson’s team from the start. Alan Hutton will play no part after his harsh red card last weekend which means Bruce will be missing a key component of some of his side’s best attacking play. Phil Bardsley would appear out-of-favour and has been reduced to making substitute cameos in recent weeks, so the increasingly versatile Anton Ferdinand could well start at right-back. The centre of defence is anyone’s guess with John Mensah uncertain to start with his ongoing hamstring problem. Matt Kilgallon began the last game and may play, but Michael Turner is a doubt. This means Paolo Da Silva may play some part in a makeshift central defence – not exactly ideal against the champions.

Kieran Richardson is the likely attacking option at left-back with Steed Malbranque in front of him. This could be a key area as the Belgian-born winger has given most defences a torrid time in recent weeks and United’s right-back area has looked vulnerable this season. Jordan Henderson and David Meyler are likely to continue in the centre of midfield with Lee Cattermole an injury doubt and Lorik Cana out of form. Fraizer Campbell will continue on the right-wing and will be eager to prove a point against one of his former clubs. If his performance against another of his former teams, Tottenham, was anything to go by, his energy and pace could well cause the Red Devil’s backline some difficulty. Up front Kenwyne Jones will most probably look to lead the line, supported by the newly announced Sunderland Player of the Year – no prizes for guessing – Darren Bent.

In reality the omens are not great for the Black Cats. Although the sides have contested some exciting and close contests in recent years, you would have to go back to near the beginning of the Peter Reid era and a shock 2-1 win at Roker Park in 1997 to find the last Sunderland win over Manchester United in the league. Paradoxically, the Wearsiders have faired better – just – when the sides have met on the other side of the Pennines in recent meetings. United have won five out of their last six league trips to the Stadium of Light and whereas Sunderland are traditionally weak finishers to Premier League campaigns, Manchester United always seem to save their best for last. However, with the renewed vigour in the way Sunderland have been playing and considering Arsenal, Livepool and Tottenham have all fallen on Wearside this season, do not count out the scenario in which Chelsea lose at Anfield yet still go on to win the title

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