Premier League | Old Trafford | Sat 3 May | 10pm
Fearless Black Cats aim to wreck Giggsy's honeymoon.
With Manchester United already having one eye on next season, there's been much debate on the club forums this week as to whether they could do without the distraction of Europa League football.
MAN UNITED FORM
- Man Utd 4-0 Norwich (Prem)
- Everton 2-0 Man Utd (Prem)
- Bayern 3-1 Man Utd (CL)
- Newcastle 0-4 Man Utd (Prem)
- Man Utd 1-1 Bayern (CL)
- S'land 4-0 Cardiff (Prem)
- Chelsea 1-2 S'land (Prem)
- Man City 2-2 S'land (Prem)
- S'land 0-1 Everton (Prem)
- Spurs 5-1 S'land (Prem)
United fans won't take many positives from the last 10 months – although a 3pm home kick-off on a Saturday (in May!) will be a welcome treat – but heading into the new term with no European distractions could be just what the club needs to focus minds on a top-four assault (well that and a few big-money summer signings. And a permanent manager).
The Red Devils will probably need to win all of their final three games to have any chance of beating Spurs to that final European place – Hull and Southampton follow Saturday's visit of Sunderland – but the wave of optimism brought about by Ryan Giggs's presence in the dugout could be enough for United to make a late charge.
Despite the distraction the Consolation Cup might cause, the Interim One, understandably, is targeting qualification while he is briefly in charge. "We are relying on other teams dropping points but I think it is important you have European football at Old Trafford," said Giggs. "I want to win [the final] games and I want European nights at Old Trafford, it is as simple as that."
If Giggsy achieves his short-term goal, it's worth remembering that from next season the Europa League winners get a pass into the Champions League, which was a smart move by UEFA.
Now all they need to do is ditch the seedings, the drawn-out group stage and the subsequent arrival of the Champions League duds for the knockout phase – instead returning to the UEFA Cup days of names-in-the-hat, two-legged ties, straight-knockout – and they'll have a real competition on their hands.
Next up for Giggs is a side who were 35 minutes away from bagging a Europa League spot themselves in the League Cup final just two months ago – having won at Old Trafford in the semi-finals – but who are now solely focused on Premier League survival following a remarkable resurgence in April.
Seemingly cast adrift at the bottom just three weeks ago after a home loss to Everton on April 16, Gus Poyet's side have responded in a remarkable manner, drawing at Manchester City, winning at Chelsea and then thumping relegation rivals Cardiff 4-0 last weekend. Only West Brom have avoided Premier League relegation after being bottom at Christmas (in 2004), but if the Black Cats can avoid defeat on Saturday they'll be well on course to repeat the feat – especially with winnable homes games to follow against West Brom and Swansea.
The headline news for United is that Robin van Persie could return, having recovered from his knee injury far quicker than expected. "He came back last Friday and trained well," said Giggs of the Dutch forward, who's been out with a knee injury since March 19. "He just needs to work on his fitness now but he looked great. We’ll just have to wait and see how he goes this week." Giggs will also be without Rafael due to a thigh problem, while Wayne Rooney 'only' has a tight groin after reports on Friday suggested he could miss the World Cup.
Poyet has stuck with the same starting XI for the past three games so it would be a surprise to see him rotate. Steven Fletcher is out (ankle ligaments), while Ki Sung-Yueng's knee knock should finish his season and his loan spell, with the South Korean ineligible to face parent club Swansea on the final day.
Key battle: Nemanja Vidic vs Connor Wickham
In his penultimate game at Old Trafford before leaving for Inter Milan, United's Serbian skipper will want to leave on a high following a frustrating season blighted by injury and David Moyes's desire to rebuild the Red Devils' defence. Last weekend's 4-0 win against Norwich might not have been his biggest test in his eight years at the club, but the 32-year-old looked very assured, topping the match stats for interceptions (5), clearances (19) and aerial duels (winning 12/12).
On Saturday he'll be up against a 21-year-old striker who in a matter of weeks has been transformed from £8 million flop to potentially the saviour of Sunderland's top-flight status. With a solitary goal in his previous 37 Premier League outings, Wickham was only recalled from a loan spell at Leeds due to Fletcher's injury, but he hasn't looked back since finding the net at the Etihad, with 5 goals in his last 3 games. After getting the better of the Prem's meanest two defences, Wickham's newfound confidence was there for all to see against Cardiff. Of his 6 shots on goal (the highest in the game), his 2 on target both bothered the back of the net.
Described by previous boss Paolo Di Canio as a "playboy model" who needed a "slap in the face" to get motivated, the former Ipswich striker has found plenty of love from Poyet. "We talk about needing a miracle but this team needed a shock – and Connor has provided it. He's changing everything," gushed Gus following last week's relegation battle. And with a brand new tattoo inked across Wickham's chest and shoulders – as he proudly unveiled on Instagram – it's odds-on he'll be whipping his shirt off at Old Trafford, even it's to trade with United's Serbian destroyer at full-time.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- United 2-1p S'land (LC, Jan 14)
- S'land 2-1 United (LC, Jan 14)
- S'land 1-2 United (PL, Oct 13)
- S'land 0-1 United (PL, Mar 13)
- United 3-1 S'land (PL, Dec 12)
Even if he does win all four games Giggs is unlikely to be offered the United job full-time, but the Welshman is being lined up to work alongside the next boss – although his role will depend on who that is. With Real Madrid reaching the Champions League final, Carlo Ancelotti appears unlikely to exit the Bernabeu, meaning Louis van Gaal – a coach with a large entourage of loyal assistants – is the favourite. As for Poyet, if he can drag Sunderland out of the drop zone having taken the club to a first cup final in 22 years, he'll head to his summer holidays a very content man. "It's the most strange, incredible and unexpected season I've experienced in my entire career," he said.
Facts and figures
- United have won their last 6 games with Sunderland including 5 win/win doubles.
- 10 of United’s 17 home games vs bottom-half teams since start of last season have had at least 4 goals.
- 14 of Sunderland’s last 19 trips to top-half teams have had at least 3 goals.
- Sunderland have conceded first in 9 of their last 14 away matches against top-half teams.
Best Bet: Over 3.5 Goals @ 2.30
More FFT Stats Zone facts • Find the best odds with Bet Butler
The three points are far more important to the visitors, but with the gloom dispersed around Old Trafford, Giggs to edge ever closer to his Europa League dream. 2-1.