Manchester United come to the Stadium of Light with a fearsome record of late and look likely to win back the title at a canter, how would you assess the season so far?
Busby Babe: I'm probably one of United's harshest critics and yet, I have little complaints about this season thus far. Quite obviously, the league is going smoothly and it's been a tremendous response after losing the title last season to Manchester City in such a heartbreaking fashion. The FA Cup has been a focus this season as it's been nearly a decade since the club has won it and very few players on the squad have a winner's medal from that competition (I think only Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and Darren Fletcher own one). The quarter-final replay against Chelsea on Monday is a massive tie.
Even though United have been eliminated from Europe, I think most fans are content with the performance on that front and most still feel aggrieved by Nani (unfairly in our view) being sent off against Real Madrid at Old Trafford. What hurts most is that I believe this is Sir Alex Ferguson's best team since Cristiano Ronaldo departed in the summer of 2009. I don't necessarily think that we're better than Europe's elite at the moment, but I do think we would have been formidable foes against any side in the Champions League quarter-finals (I would have hoped to have avoided Barcelona, though).
Overall, it's been a good season -- this is if we can close it out and earn the title back from City. It'll be a really, really good season if we can win the FA Cup and secure a domestic double. A deeper run into Europe could have potentially made this a great season.
BB: In my opinion (and of course I might be biased), I have no issue with the way Rio handled the situation. Perhaps traveling to Qatar to be a pundit doesn't help on a PR front but the bottom line is that he's been meticulous in taking care of his body as of late so there's no reason to think he's not still optimally preparing his body for the season's final month-and-a-half. And with how fit he's been over the past year-and-a-half or so, I'm thrilled that he's being a stickler to his current regimen.
To be blunt, Hodgson has handled the Rio situation extremely poorly since he took over as England manager. Even if Rio snubbed Hodgson out of spite this time -- which I don't think he did -- I wouldn't have blamed him for it. As for Sir Alex, I certainly don't envy any England manager in having to deal with him :)
At the moment, Rio is England's best defender -- this is even when everyone is fit and available. I'm not sure if he still will be in the summer of 2014 when he's 35-years-old, but if he desires to participate at Brazil 2014 (if England qualify), I hope he gets the opportunity.
Sir Alex has warned his side about complacency as they open up a fifteen point gap over City, surely there's no way United will throw away such a substantial lead despite letting slip an eight point gap last term?
BB: I'm pessimistic by nature and this was well before we blew an eight-point lead with six fixtures to go last season. I think that trauma has taken some of the swagger and arrogance out of United fans (yes, I understand there are still plenty of arrogant United fans).
Here's how my miserable mind works: We're going to blow the game on Saturday because Sir Alex will deploy a second-choice side with Monday's FA Cup replay against Chelsea in mind and because Sunderland are fighting for survival. Then City will come to Old Trafford the week after and emerge victorious. Then the lead will be down to nine-points with seven fixtures to go and it could be deja vu all over from last season from that point on.
I'm a joy to be around as you can probably tell...
We'll likely win the title, obviously. But it's not won until it's won so I won't be popping any champagne bottles until then (it would be lovely have the guard of honour held at the Emirates in late April!).
Speaking of last term, are we all friends yet?
BB: I'm over it. And in fact, the whole Poznan thing never bothered me. There are a lot of United fans still quite bitter about it, though. To each their own.
Looking ahead to Saturday lunch time the talk early in the week building up to the game seemed to suggest that Sir Alex would look to rotate/rest some key personnel ahead of some key fixtures against Chelsea in the FA Cup and of course Manchester City next week. Are you confident an "under-strength" Manchester United can come away from the North-East with all three points if that is the case?
BB: As you suggest, it's very likely Sir Alex does rest the players that he would like to use at Stamford Bridge on Monday. The large gap in the title race can allow him to reasonably do this. In addition, United have thirteen players returning from international duty so there's that to consider as well.
There's been some discussion about Sir Alex's statement this season about this being the best squad he's ever had. He wasn't necessarily saying that his current best XI is better than any past one's -- because it's not -- but he was eluding to the tremendous depth in the squad. And after being ravaged by injuries in the past few seasons, this campaign has seen relative good health. A second-choice United team from this current squad could likely contend for a Champions League place.
Having said that, I do feel confident that an 'under-strength' side can travel to the Stadium of Light and get the desired three-points. I wouldn't be surprised, though, to see such a side disjointed and lacking cohesion. Thus, an ugly 1-0 sort of victory wouldn't shock me, nor would a draw or a defeat.
Sunderland themselves will have to shake things up a little following the absence of Steven Fletcher through injury. With the Scot often the difference maker for Sunderland this term are there any other players in our ranks that you believe could cause MUFC problems this weekend?
BB: Stephane Sessegnon, although seemingly inconsistent, has that ability to create something stunning out of nowhere so he needs to be an obvious focus. He worries me the most. I know that Adam Johnson hasn't quite met expectations since his arrival but he obviously has the capabilities to punish a side that give him too much time and space on the ball. Seb Larsson's set-piece delivery is always a concern as well. Fortunately for the ACLs and ankles of United players, Lee Cattermole is unavailable on Saturday.
Conversely, how do you expect Sir Alex will setup his side to see off Sunderland?
BB: This is kind of a futile exercise, to be honest. It's almost on par with asking me to give you winning lottery numbers. I think Sir Alex smirks every time the team news is announced an hour before kick-off and everyone is surprised by a handful of his selection choices.
I think there's a good chance that there's a completely different starting XI on Saturday from the one that will feature 48 hours later against Chelsea -- perhaps goalkeeper David de Gea features in both, though. The likes of Rafael, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Alexander Buttner, Paul Scholes, Anderson, and Ryan Giggs weren't on international duty so they could all feature. As could Phil Jones and Nani if they are deemed fit enough to participate. Then again, Sir Alex might want a handful of those players to feature at Chelsea.
Hmmm... if you pointed a weapon to my head and forced me to guess a starting XI (disclaimer: do not put any wagers on this) -- David de Gea | Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Nemanja Vidic, Alexander Buttner | Nani, Paul Scholes, Anderson, Ryan Giggs | Javier Hernandez, Danny Welbeck.
BB: I tend to stay away from the prediction game but in the spirit of being polite, I'll go with a drab 1-0 United win.
Oh, and can we have Jonny Evans back? Man do I miss Jonny Evans...
BB: I'm a staunch Jonny Evans apologist, so NO!
Many thanks to Gene from The Busby Babe for taking the time to chatting with us. Be sure to follow them on Twitter for the Manchester United perspective leading up to and following Saturday's game.