Januzaj tries his hand at playing leading man

Posted by Musa Okwonga

Sunderland 1, Manchester United 2. And also, for the away team's supporters, "phew". Sunderland, a side bottom of the league following the departure of the controversial Paolo di Canio, produced as spirited a first half as only David Moyes could have feared. They pressed superbly from the off, forcing Phil Jones and then Nemanja Vidic into panicked passes that laid the ball at the feet of Craig Gardner, who shot low across David De Gea for a fifth-minute lead.

At half-time, one of Moyes' most enterprising line-ups to date had offered worryingly little invention. A forward line boasting Nani, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Adnan Januzaj -- much more later on him -- had shown far more sluggishness than creativity, and it was a surprise that Rooney lasted the entire 90 minutes. Van Persie, late in the game, missed a chance which at the start of last season -- or, more charitably, at the start of this one -- he would have dispatched blindfold and Nani's finishing could have done with some slight recalibration. That left the attacking burden on an 18-year-old pair of slight Belgian shoulders, and thankfully, Januzaj delivered.

- Report: Sunderland 1-2 Man United

The playmaker, who began on the left, drifted along the forward line for much of the match, and in his first professional start for Manchester United, he produced two superb finishes. A perennial threat until he was substituted in the game's late stages, Januzaj calmed his team with an equaliser early in the second half -- a low angled drive, after which he sprinted, businesslike, back to the halfway line -- and the winner, an exquisite left-foot volley from a poor headed clearance.

Moyes must take great credit for taking such a risk with his inclusion, since he might have been expected to start with a more conservative option on the flanks: Danny Welbeck, say, or Antonio Valencia. Moyes realised, though, that a victory here was essential and, perhaps given heart by Januzaj's goal in midweek for the reserves against Bolton, he made a gamble of which Sir Alex Ferguson would have been proud.

Januzaj's goals changed the entire momentum of the match, and Sunderland, worn down by the sheer intensity of their early pressing, eventually fell away. The numbers are revealing: the home side did a great deal of work closing down Manchester United, but saw far less of the ball. According to Opta, Jack Colback completed the most passes of any player on his team, with 28; eight Manchester United players completed more passes than him, led by Michael Carrick with 102. Carrick was in excellent form throughout, playing the ball promptly and early with either foot into dangerous areas, and looks to have regained some of the fine passing rhythm that was the key feature of his play last season. Alongside an equally industrious Tom Cleverley, who remains the midfield partner with whom he has the best chemistry, Carrick eventually wore down the opposition.

De Gea can also take credit from an exceptional save in the first half, with the score at 1-0 to Sunderland, that in hindsight probably saved the match. Vidic has plenty to thank him for, as the Spaniard's outstanding parry of Emanuele Giaccherini's header came at a time when the home side were harrying Manchester United to perfection. The Serbian centre-half will avoid a more pointed media inquest as a result, though now would be a time to bring Chris Smalling from the bench alongside Phil Jones.

The final word, though, must go to Januzaj. Though he wore the number 44 shirt, he produced a performance of which some of the club's finest number 7s would have been proud. This was, on one hand, only a game against the league's bottom team. On the other hand, it was a match before which his manager had been criticized for his lack of attacking bravery, and had seen his team succumb to a clutch of worrying defeats.

Yet Januzaj took the stage not like a backup actor, but a leading man. His form will doubtlessly fluctuate in the months to come, but it looks like Old Trafford may be ready to welcome another future star to its starting line-up.


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