These are worrying times for Martin O'Neill and Sunderland. They're in freefall, having only picked up three points from their last seven games at a pivotal point of the season, and will hardly be relishing a visit from the champions-elect.
Sitting as they are 15 points clear at the top of the table, United are by far and away the most consistent team in the Premier League, and even though they're likely to rest players ahead of a crunch FA Cup replay with Chelsea on Monday, the players Ferguson does select will be as keen as mustard to be involved. United will have injuries and suspensions between now and the end of the season and so those fringe players will want to make sure they're considered when the time comes. Saturday lunchtime at the Stadium of Light will be a time to impress the manager.
At this stage of the season momentum is all-important, and as if Sunderland didn't have enough to worry about with their woeful form, the news that midfield talisman Lee Cattermole and top-scorer Steven Fletcher are both out for the season will have gone down like a lead balloon in the dressing room.
This is the start of three games for the Black Cats that'll decide their season. After the visit of United they travel to Chelsea and then have a Tyne-Wear derby at St James's Park to contend with. Their season in a nutshell, across two weeks. Pressure football.
When I look at Sunderland I see an experienced manager who has achieved many things in his career, but the point is the manager can only do so much. He can't go onto the pitch and bang the goals in or win the headers and make the tackles. Sunderland need characters and they need people that are going to take responsibility. It's so difficult when you're struggling as a team, I've been there in my time at Chester City; everyone feels like they're only a misplaced pass or missed tackle away from conceding yet another goal and going down to another defeat. Thankfully, at Chester we didn't have teams like United to worry about, something Martin O'Neill and his players are faced with.
As I mentioned earlier, United will undoubtedly rest players for this game, but in short I don't think it really matters what team Ferguson picks. Sunderland are bereft of confidence, performances and most importantly, goals. Danny Graham has not shown anything to suggest he can replace Fletcher, himself not really among the goals since the turn of the year anyway. United should have far too much for the hosts.
There's no value in backing United for the straight win, they're currently just 1.664/6, but they've won their last five league games without conceding a single goal so United to win to nil looks like a good bet at a reasonably generous price of 2.526/4. Back that and watch this impressive Manchester United team march on towards their 20th championship. Sadly for Sunderland, they'll merely be closer to the Championship trapdoor.
Back Manchester United to win to nil at 2.526/4