Sunderland slip deeper into relegation trouble

Posted by Colin Randall

The performance may have been better than the home draw against Norwich City, but then it would have struggled to be worse. There may have been heart galore in a second half that at least deprived Manchester United of stretching a slim lead, but Sunderland never seriously looked like scoring.

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Sunderland 0 - 1 Manchester United. The destination of the three points went to script and, since humiliation was avoided, Martin O'Neill can at least hope his team drew sufficient pride from the game to give them a sporting chance of picking up some points in the tough run to come.

But the honest Sunderland supporter acknowledges that for all the effort they produced, their side was once again not good enough.

United were significantly below their best but generally looked more likely to score again than concede. A massive lead at the top of the Premier League makes it virtually certain that the title is going back to Old Trafford, while the best Sunderland can pray for is that by the time games at Chelsea next weekend then away to Newcastle United are over, they are not adrift in the bottom three.

It is all very well saying a club that has an excellent goalkeeper in Simon Mignolet, United defensive pedigree in John O'Shea, a costly England international in Adam Johnson and the elegant skills of Stephane Sessegnon should be too good to go down. The same sort of thing has been said about a host of relegated teams over the seasons, as I am sure supporters of Leeds United, Ipswich, Nottingham Forest and others will attest.

There is not the least shame in losing by a single, highly fortunate goal at home to the champions-elect. But Sunderland are not in dire trouble because they can rarely compete with the elite or because, in one such contest, they are undone by a wicked Titus Bramble deflection of Robin van Persie's going-nowhere shot. They are not in desperate straits because refereeing decisions are going atrociously against them. They are there because with the exception of a handful of matches, they have played like a relegation side all season whether facing good opposition or bad.

The defence is suspect, the midfield feeble and lacking creativity and the attack unserviced. Take away Steven Fletcher from that attack, as injury on international duty has him done for the rest of the season, and such menace as Sunderland can otherwise muster vanishes into thin air.

Phil Bardsley is a fullback but probably had as many shots at goal as anyone else in red and white stripes. At any rate, I assume the goal was his target when he made a promising run in the first half only to blaze the ball so high over the bar that it posed a greater threat to North Sea shipping than David De Gea's clean sheet. But at least he tried; there was another effort in the second half.

But what did Danny Graham, preferred ahead of Connor Wickham in the starting 11, contribute? He had a chance very early to put Sunderland ahead after a mistake by De Gea but somehow poked the ball towards Sessegnon, stranded in a blatantly offside position. A television commentator charitably suggested this may have been a case of poor first touch rather than a deliberate pass. It hardly matters.

Sir Alex Ferguson could afford to be magnanimous afterwards, praising the spirit of Sunderland's second half display even though it produced barely a hint that hopes of an equaliser were more than a crazy fantasy. Fittingly, the last meaningful action of the game saw Mignolet having to save excellently to stop van Persie from making it two.

Sir Alex knows his team is coasting towards another title. O'Neill knows he has a mountainous task to keep his team up.

If only supporters felt they had been shown enough evidence of resilience and ability to believe the necessary points will come from home games against Everton, Stoke City and Southampton, that task would seem manageable. As things stand, it does not.

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