Whilst last week's home draw against Villa was a disappointing result, it did show that the Sunderland class of 2011/12 does have a little character behind it. And we knew that character would be tested to the full today as we travelled to an fervent Old Trafford to face the wounded champions.
In what was a very commendable show of courage, Steve Bruce resisted the temptation to pack the midfield and instead decided to persist with the flourishing partnership of Connor Wickham and Nicklas Bendtner up front. The teamsheet showed the expected changes of Phil Bardsley and Kieron Westwood deputising for the injured duo of John O'Shea and Simon Mignolet, and David Vaughan was also to miss out through injury. That meant a return to the midfield for Lee Cattermole.
United went with a flexible attacking line-up featuring wayne Rooney tucking in behind Hernandez up front, with popular Sunderland alumni Danny Welbeck playing from the left.
But it didn't take long for Sunderland's attacking plans to unravel. With barely seconds on the clock, Connor Wickham chased down a loose square pass from United on the half way line, only to collide awkwardly with Rio Ferdinand. The stretcher was out before you knew it, and Ji was thrown into the game.
Perhaps due to the long delay, the game seemed to take forever to get going, but when it did it was perhaps surprising to see Sunderland doing what little pressing there was. A good half chance fell to Sebastien Larsson which was deflected behind for a corner, and a typically sharp Nicklas Bendtner turn resulting in an early warming of Anders Lindegaard's gloves in the United goal. Stephane Sessegnon, who was cutting a frustrated figure out on the left sliced a shot horribly wide as the visitors continued to adopt attack as the best form of defence.
But you don't win what United have without knowing how to assert your authority on your own pitchm and the hosts slowly and perhaps subtly started to build the pressure. Their defence stepped up, compressing the game in Sunderland's half and started to win a few free kicks. Rooney fire a warning shot into Westwoods arms from range, and Hernandez thought he'd try his luck with a pretty shameful dive in the penaty box.
The game was about to enter a crucial period, however. Ji battled for possession high up the pitch, emerging with possession of the ball and blue shirts streaming past him.Inexperience seemed to win out, though, as he frustratingly fired a left foot shot high and wide. United's response was predictably merciless. With the clock ticking over into injury time, Nani broke into the box and fired an ambitious narrow angle shot on goal, which Westwood turned behind with a routine save. From the corner, the ball was glanced into the far corner. Welbeck appeared to get it at first, but upon closer inspection the general consensus was that it was a Wes Brown own goal. A very cruel blow on the stroke of half time.
The goal did open the game up after the break, with Sunderland pushing for an equaliser and United with a famed killer instinct to satisfy. Nani saw a free kick deflected wide, before Kieran Richardson's defensive discipline was tested once more. It did not fail him, though, as he was in the perfect position guarding the post to clear a Hernandez header off the line from another troublesome United corner.
We then reached the talking point of the afternoon. Sebastien Larsson swung over a trademark delicious cross. Ji went up to contest it on the edge of the 6-yard box whilst sandwiched between two united defenders. Astonishingly, the referee Lee Mason pointed to the spot amidst furious United protests. Was a referee actually going to give a penalty against Manchester United at Old Trafford with the game so delicately poised, and on Sir Alex Ferguson's big day as well? Of course he wasn't. An impromptu conference with the linesman saw the decision changed to a United free kick. In the interests of fairness, it should be noted that a penalty to Sunderland would not have been the correct decision.
The Champions, whether it was through outrage or relief, responded by forcing Kieron Westwood to show us what we have been missing all season with a quite extraordinary double save, first from Rooney and then from Welbeck.
It was a piece of goalkeeping so good that it gave his side fresh impetus to make it count for something. Their attacks found an extra gear. Ji, who was proving a real presence in the air despite his slight frame, headed wide, but the real chance fell to Nicklas Bendtner. Following a spell of good Sunderland possession around the Manchester United box, the ball reached Larsson who threaded a sumptuous ball low across the 6 yard line. Bendtner threw a leg at it, but it was tantalizingly out of reach and the chance went begging. It was to be the best chance, and the final chance, and Sunderland fell to a another defeat, albeit a credible one.
Team (Ratings in brackets)
Starting XI: Westwood (8), Bardsley (6), Turner (6), Brown (6), Richardson (7), Cattermole (6), Colback (6), Larsson (7), Sessegnon (5), Bendtner (6), Wickham (-)
Subs Used: Ji (7), Elmohamady (6), Meyler (6)
Man of the Match: Kieron Westwood - Sometimes when a goalkeeper gets the award it creates the impression that he single-handedly repelled a siege on his goal. That is not the case here, though. His double save from Rooney and Welbeck was as good as anything you'll see all season and his handling and command of his area were also of a very high standard. Generally, a top class goalkeeping display from Westwood on his first Premier league start and very encouraging for the future.
So what did we learn from all this? Well, firstly, this Sunderland squad need fear no one. They can compete and it should signal the end of the turgid packing of the midfield that we have seen in the past in games such as these. It was a game that ebbed and flowed, and Sunderland had their chances.
One worry, though, was that it highlighted the continued difficulty of shoehorning Stephane Sessegnon into a rigid 4-4-2 system. The game passed him by before he was eventually withdrawn in the 75th minute.
All in all, though, a credible and gutsy effort from Sunderland, and one from which positives can be taken.