“You’ve got to just try and go on to the end and see what happens.” Ryan Giggs, May 13, 2012
United have a tough task: to take care of business at the Sunderland today, and become only the second team to win at the Stadium of Light since December. Without a win, nothing happening at the Etihad matters -- at all. To accomplish the task, Sir Alex sends out Wayne Rooney by himself up top, flanked on the wings by Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, who themselves bookend Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs in the middle. Defensively, Jonny Evans makes a surprise return, partnering Rio Ferdinand in the center. The central pair are supported by Phil Jones and Captain Patrice Evra, and, as usual, its David De Gea in between the sticks.
It’s a mixed beginning, the two teams feeling each other out to begin the contest, with Sunderland perhaps having a bit of the upper hand in terms of attempts on goal. The midfield battle is fierce, and both teams struggle to create much of anything of real value. Antonio Valencia looks most lively for the visitors, bombing down the right hand side of the pitch, but to this point in the match he’s been unable to replicate the quality of his runs with a through ball or cross.
Rooney pats Phil Bardsley on the back and shares a joke after narrowly missing a header – this may be a hard fought game, but the goodwill between the two sides is also readily apparent, with Sunderland’s squad showcasing three former Red Devils amongst the players in the Red and White home strip. Jones heads just over the bar with Mignolet stranded in No-Man’s Land, as United ratchet up the pressure just a bit as the game approaches twenty minutes gone. Although the crowd is initially slow to react, there’s a score just seconds later, as Rooney is picked out by none other than Jones – attempting to make amends for the poor crosses that have betrayed his youth of late. United’s main man stoops to waist height to steer the bouncing ball past Mignolet and just inside the post, and United have landed the first punch of the day, grabbing a quick 1-0 advantage.
United are far more patient on offense today, content to pass the ball around and probe the Sunderland defense for openings. For their part, Sunderland have fallen back into more of a counterpunching style after conceding the opener, gifting large swaths of possession to their blue clad visitors. The development suits United well: Giggs peppers the Sunderland ‘keeper from close range, after a Sunderland mistake in the box hands the ball to the Welshman in a forward position, and Rooney bangs a free kick off the bar, Mignolet growing roots in front of goal. Although the score is unchanged, the visitors are in the lead, as well as the ascendancy.
Although there are 22 men on the pitch, it’s clearly the Wayne Rooney show today, as Wazza could already have had a hat trick by turning in Young’s miscue, but the ball continues its skittering run through the goal box, deflected just wide by United’s Number 10. Frazier Campbell misses a fine opportunity of his own at the other end, as both defenses yield chances. The visiting crowd grows quiet as news of a Manchester City goal sweeps the visiting end, but the men in blue soldier on – there’s business still to be done. The teams trudge off to the locker rooms with Sir Alex marginally the more satisfied of the two managers: happy would be much too strong a word, given the events back in Manchester.
The second half kick offs are simultaneous in Manchester and Sunderland, so that neither the hunter nor the hunted has an unfair advantage. On this side of the Manchester divide, it’s Rooney again early in the second half, virtually a one man show on the day, put in on goal by Young, but once again Mignolet is there to beat away the Englishman’s effort. The visitors section comes to life on news of Djibril Cisse’s goal at City, the action off the pitch now as relevant as the action in front of their very eyes. And what they’re witnessing is not especially pleasant or pretty: there’s a scramble of bodies in front of the United goal, but at the end Phil Bardsley’s shot is blocked by some stern United defending. It’s desperate stuff, with bodies flying all around the pitch: although Sunderland look lively now, United once again manage to escape unscathed.
Valencia and Young nearly combine for a second United goal, the Uruguayan picking out the winger with ease, but Young’s on-target effort is denied by another body in motion – this time from the Sunderland squad. Although the action on the pitch is producing tension so thick you can cut it with a knife, one spectator has had enough, and decides he can’t bear to be away from the news any longer: Nemanja Vidic does what just about everyone else at the Stadium wants to be doing, as he busts outs a cellphone from his seat in the stands to get an update on the action at the Etihad. How he manages to get a signal surprises no one: Vidic just orders the phone to work.
And he must scarcely believe what he’s hearing: ten-man QPR have managed to find the net again, and Rangers now lead 2-1 at the Etihad. The news rumbles through the Stadium of Light like a steam engine as Paul Scholes is tripped just outside the Sunderland box. Although Giggs’ resulitng effort is blocked by the wall, United appear to have a new spring in their step. Meanwhile, Sir Bobby still sits stonefaced in the crowd: the United legend has seen it all before.
Scholes and Giggs, United legends in their own right, nearly add to the day’s narrow lead. Scholes’ effort is denied only by the post, while Giggs’ shot requires another timely intervention from Mignolet. Luis Nani enters the fray for an injured Ashley Young as the clock shows less than ten minutes remaining in the contest. Although Sir Alex is forced into the reshuffle, it can’t hurt: United need one more goal to make the scoreline more comfortable.
Giggs forces Mignolet to full stretch as the miutes tick down – and a question that no one dared to ask at the game’s kick off begins to come into view: could Title Number 20 be only three minutes away? United keep possession well, daring Sunderland to take the ball away, and stalling ever-so-slightly over the free kicks which inevitably follow. It’s three minutes until the final whistle is blown, but before it does, another round of news sweeps the Stadium of Light: City have equalized and still have three minutes of their own left to play. Will this game be for the title or played solely in imagining what might have been?
Rooney takes the air out of the ball in succession of corner kicks, and Sir Alex looks at his watch. When Howard Webb's final whistle comes, there’s a feeling that sweeps the Visitors Section, but what is it? Jubilation? Anxiousness? Despair? The next two minutes tell the tale. In the end, it's two minutes too much, and it's heartbreak that sweeps the stadium as City notch another in a stirring comeback viscory at the Etihad. Two goals in stoppage time have sunk the Champions' title aspirations.
This is farlieonfootie laid low on May 14.
This is farlieonfootie laid low on May 14.