Sunderland 0 United 0: Mathieson's verdict
If Manchester United continue like this on their travels, it won't just be their club suits that will be going up in flames. The Reds had to incinerate their clothes, wash bags and kit after the pre-match shower of sewage in their dressing room. It left the changing area stinking to high heaven and United's first-half performance was no better. And you can bet if there isn't a better return soon when United leave the safety of Old Trafford in the Premier League then it will be Sir Alex Ferguson who'll be kicking up the biggest stink in the dressing room. He has a knack of coming up smelling of roses in adversity but the signs are this is going to be one of his biggest tests yet. The last time United failed to win their first four away matches of a season was in the 1989-90 campaign. That had followed the summer spending spree that brought in Gary Pallister, Neil Webb, Paul Ince, Danny Wallace and Mike Phelan. Poor old Pally bore the brunt of the fourth of those away games when the new-look Reds were obliterated 5-1 at Maine Road by City. Pallister and Fergie's new generation recovered to win the FA Cup, which kick-started the golden years. There are those who suspect that famous old trophy, or retaining the Carling Cup, is as good as United can hope for this time. The good news is that Rio Ferdinand is remarkably better at plugging leaks than Sunderland's plumbers. The Reds' Achilles heel this term has been their slack defending at Fulham, Everton and Bolton. Whether it is a departmental problem or a collective one, the fact is the return of the England defender against Valencia and at the Stadium of Light has stitched together a rearguard record that was falling apart at the seams. Ferdinand was superb in Spain and, after much debate as to whether he could cope with two matches on the bounce after his return from knee ligament damage, he was wonderful on Wearside. Just as Pallister and Steve Bruce had provided the platform 21 years ago for the breathtaking climb to glory after that derby disaster, so Ferdinand's comeback can bring much-needed stability at the back. Now all Fergie has to do is to put all his departments together again and get his attack back to its early autumn form. As a potent force they really were appallingly non-existent. I cannot recall United being so disappointing going forward. Michael Owen and Kiko Macheda are at complete opposite ends of their careers but have the same goals in mind. A 30-year-old craving the chance to revive his career and a 19-year-old craving the chance to be a regular member of Fergie's attack. A response at Sunderland and we'd have been lauding the United manager's juggling act. But there wasn't a single effort on goal to build up their personal cases. Indeed, United's only effort of the first 45 minutes was a harmless Nani free-kick. But there was sympathy for Owen and Macheda because there was no creative avenue whatsoever in the midfield to provide them with the chances we know they can both put away. Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher and Anderson were completely outplayed and dominated by Sunderland's engine room. How United's front two must have envied the supply central midfielders Lee Cattermole, Bolo Zenden and Jordan Henderson were providing. Both the Englishman and Italian would have eaten up the golden chance Cattermole's brilliant run and pass created in the 15th minute for Steed Malbranque. Well, they might not had done had they been facing Edwin Van der Sar. Malbranque came up against his old Fulham colleague and discovered he's still as sharp as ever. Had that chance gone in, or Zenden's 37th-minute shot hadn't hit a post, you felt that with United in this poor shape then they'd have caved in as easily as the Stadium of Light ceiling. I bet the Reds would have rather put up with the stench in their old dressing room than face Fergie in their emergency changing area at the interval. There was some improvement with the introduction of Dimitar Berbatov, his post-Valencia rest having to be abandoned to provide some imagination. It was puzzling that having been on a high after his Mestalla winner in Spain that Chicharito was left to kick his heels on the bench. You'd have thought the Mexican would have been a certain starter. He injected the pace and liveliness that was so badly missing in the first half when he replaced Macheda in the 64th minute. Despite the changes and improved sharpness that at least led to one clear-cut chance for Berbatov in the 80th minute but was passed up disappointingly by the previously in-form Bulgarian, you feared even worse late agony for United. They escaped that fate. However, while draws at Fulham, Everton and Bolton were largely viewed as the Reds chucking away vital title points this was, after such a lacklustre performance, a valuable point gained. But if Reds fans, particularly those who endured this miserable afternoon, need some historical comfort then in 1967 the Reds registered eight successive away draws between January and April but still won the title. What is your verdict? Have your say.
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