United bury Wearside demons
There was an air of deja vu. Manchester United, cast in a mixture of blue and black, winning 1-0 at the Stadium of Light. The last time this happened, however, the day was steeped in disappointment for the visitors and mockery from the home fans as fierce rivals Manchester City collected their first Premier League title.
"Those Sunderland fans were cheering for City. We won't forget that, I'm telling you," Ferguson said earlier this week. It showed. Whereas once the clubs had exchanged players (two of whom - Jonny Evans and Danny Welbeck - returned to warm welcomes) the relationship now seemed soured. Like so many undercurrents, it was most prevalent in the stands: "Where's your famous city song?" the traveling support sang, showing they were keen to laugh last and subsequently loudest.
On the pitch, their team were meticulous and diligent without ever really exerting themselves. Second gear was all that was required to best a Sunderland side bereft of confidence and cohesion. Operating with a machine-like consistency that has been a hallmark of Manchester United's previous title-winning campaigns, it is something that has evaded their rivals for much of the season.
United have also benefitted from the predatory instincts of Robin van Persie. It took him less than half an hour to provide a significant contribution that at first appeared to be his 20th goal of the season. A strike that was eventually awarded as an own goal to defender Titus Bramble, it was drizzled with the kind of luck he recently claimed he had been missing. The double deflection doing little to quell his desire to claim the strike as his own after the game.
If the goal could not be credited to Van Persie, the clever run that afforded him the space certainly could. Neither the quickest or strongest striker in the league, his price is justified by the razor-sharp mental attributes that make him so difficult to defend against. Likely cultivated during his time with compatriot Dennis Bergkamp, each clever piece of movement and subtle touch - including a slick flick between two Sunderland defenders - evoked memories of Arsenal's 'Iceman'.
Movement has been a key theme behind Manchester United's impressive title charge. Last season, a game against nearby Newcastle highlighted the fragility of their two-man midfield, but against a faster and potentially more physically imposing Sunderland midfield on Saturday, it was the free-moving nature of their central trio that helped them so effortlessly maintain possession.
In the 57th minute a neat, flicked interchange between Ashley Young and Shinji Kagawa represented the pinnacle of their afternoon's play and saw Sunderland once again forced to chase blue and black shadows.
While once Sunderland celebrated, now they mourned. The frustration from the sidelines is beginning to show itself in Martin O'Neill. Throwing his water bottle to the ground as yet another simple pass went astray mid-way through the second half, the threat of relegation is edging closer towards Wearside as games begin to run out.
"If you were to analyse it, you'd say: must create more," O'Neill said afterwards, describing his metaphorical glass as "three quarters full" with a wry smile. While his assessment is entirely correct, it does not change the fact that his side produced only a single tame effort on target during the entire 90 minutes. It also struggled to negate that for large portions of the match they looked devoid of effort or passion - a rare sight for a team lead by O'Neill and one he didn't seem to agree with.
With small skirmishes and disagreements bubbling in the Sunderland side, Alfred N'Diaye's look of disappointment was contrasted by winger James McClean, who was most vocal in trying to rouse something within his team-mates. A polarising figure on the terraces, McClean's political views and second-season complacency make him an unlikely candidate for squad unifier - a case of right message, wrong person.
Along with disappointment, pain has been an unfortunate theme for Sunderland this year. Last season they held the optimism that O'Neill has cultivated wherever he has managed, winning seven of his first ten games. He has now gone eight games without victory. Backing their heroes from the stands in the hope they are afforded another Premier League season, Sunderland fans are now feeling an altogether different kind of deja vu, the one associated with previous relegations.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Robin Van Persie. It's indicative of how dangerous Van Persie is that two experienced Premier League centre-backs – John O'Shea and Titus Bramble - struggled to contain him for the 90 minutes. Calm in possession, his ability to hold onto the ball was embodied by a second-half roulette that left his opponent wondering just what had happened.
SUNDERLAND VERDICT: Passion on the pitch seems to be waning for the home side as the fear of relegation creeps up on them. The continued poor form of Adam Johnson is a concern given he cost the club a significant portion of their summer transfer budget. With O'Neill admitting previously that perhaps too much was expected of the winger, his lack of end product from a creative standpoint means Danny Graham was never afforded a chance to break his Sunderland duck, another burden that becomes heavier with each passing week.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Able to perform just above the level that was required, Sunderland's lacklustre performance meant Manchester United never really needed to test themselves. While Van Persie may take many of the headlines, it is Shinji Kagawa who flies under the radar with his clever passing and movement. Still finding his feet in the Premier League, the Japan international's potential for next season is an exciting prospect for fans as he provides them with a genuine link player between midfield and attack.