United limp on as Macheda papers over cracks

YOU always remember the first time, which is why Federico Macheda’s extraordinary debut goal against Aston Villa will be recalled for years among Manchester United supporters.

His second will barely rate a deposit in the memory bank of those fans, yet the goal he deflected in to secure victory against Sunderland may prove the more valuable contribution if their title defence is ultimately successful.

Depriving Aston Villa of a point is one thing. A failure to overcome this pedestrian Sunderland side would have positioned further question marks against United’s ability to hold off the challenge of Liverpool and Chelsea, let alone find a route past Porto on Wednesday night.

While Macheda’s latest contribution masked a sub-standard performance by United, those three rivals will have noted the latest drop in the standards demanded by Alex Ferguson.

His main concern will be continued uncertainty at the back, culminating in an error by goalkeeper Ben Foster when Kenwyne Jones scored Sunderland’s equaliser after 55 minutes.

But there were also anonymous contributions from Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov and Ji-Sung Park which even Wayne Rooney’s industry and imagination failed to disguise.

Bobby Robson, watching from the stands, will have been among those impressed by Rooney, the architect of the opening goal for Paul Scholes, whose glancing header in the 19th minute rewarded United for their early authority. Sunderland, beaten in their previous three games, could have crumbled at that point, but they sensed United’s vulnerability and went close on three occasions before their equaliser.

Ricky Sbragia’s team were closing in on a deserved and important point when Macheda intervened by sticking out a foot to divert Micheal Carrick’s shot into the bottom corner.

Let the hype begin. We already know Macheda is a special talent simply because he is playing for Manchester United at the age of 17.

But a suggestion that his instinctive reaction represents another indicator of his genius is barely credible. Even his team-mates knew the truth.

“He’s saying it was one of those intended deft touches into the corner, but I don’t think many of the lads believe him,” Foster said.

“He’s quite a level-headed lad actually and I don’t think any of the lads in the dressing room would let him get carried away anyway. Gary Neville would quickly put his foot down on anything like that.

“It’s a fantastic story, though. He got the goal last week and he’s won us this game, but he’s been doing it for the reserves all season.”

Foster has been equally impressive in the reserves, but was at fault for Sunderland’s goal when his failure to deal with Teemu Tainio’s cross sustained United’s inability to keep clean sheets. “I was a bit disappointed with the goal,” he admitted. “I was a little bit too close to the near post when he crossed it in. I got a touch to it but Jones came in behind me and he just managed to fumble it in.

“I wouldn’t say the lack of clean sheets is that much of a concern. The most important thing is that we’re getting three points.

“I think there are certainly things we need to be looking at regarding the goals we’re conceding, but it doesn’t matter as long as we get the victories.”

So, never mind the quality, look at the results. It is not in the United tradition, but is also the pragmatic view of Scholes, who knows as well as anybody what is required at this stage of a season.

“This was a big win for us,” he said. “We haven’t played too great, but thankfully we’ve got the three points.

“It’s always disappointing if you don’t manage to keep a clean sheet, but these are tough places to come to. As long as you score more at the other end, that’s all that matters.”

It is a habit that Sunderland have dismally failed to develop in a season that has brought just eight victories and will end in relegation if their north-east rivals Middlesbrough and Newcastle can locate any kind of form and move above them.

Sunderland should be encouraged, though, by the way they responded to Scholes’ goal, with their former United full-back Phil Bardsley unwilling to settle for a draw before Macheda had the final word.

“I thought we would go on and win it,” Bardsley said. “We were feeling comfortable at 1-1, but you’ve always got to be wary when playing against side with world-class players.

“We have always seen so many late goals for United over the years and they have been up to their old tricks again in the last few weeks.

“That just goes to show what a side they are. The manager just seems to keep producing player after player and team after team. You wonder how he’s going to keep doing it but he keeps doing it. It’s great to see.”

REFEREE: Rob Styles (Hampshire) 6: There was little to trouble Styles apart from the moment he got in the way of a Manchester United move as the ball hit him. Rooney was right to wonder about his caution, though.

MATCH RATING: **** Hardly a classic — there was too much tension for that. But the intensity level was high and both teams showed ample commitment.


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