Manchester United feel the Premier League title is in their hands, and a busy Easter schedule may also put the FA Cup within reach.
With a key Cup match looming against one of their fiercest rivals, the marauding Red Devils will try to keep from underestimating Sunderland and continue their dominance in the series Saturday at the Stadium of Light.
United (24-2-3) are virtually assured of becoming the first side to reach 20 top-flight league titles in England, sitting 15 points ahead of second-place Manchester City with nine games to play.
“If you look at the 15-point lead, you have to say that it is a big gap and we shouldn’t let anything change,” defender Nemanja Vidic told the team’s official website. “We have the title in our hands but we have games still to play and some especially tough away games that are traditionally hard for us. Nothing is finished yet, but we’re in a good position.”
Manchester United are well placed to increase their lead two weeks after beating Reading 1-0 in their most recent match. They’ve outscored Sunderland 35-9 while going 15-4-0 over the past 19 meetings, including a 7-2-0 record as the visitors.
United’s dominance in the series showed no signs of changing with a 3-1 home victory Dec. 15.
That staggering success may give manager Sir Alex Ferguson the option to rest players ahead of Monday’s visit to Chelsea for the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. A week later, United will welcome Manchester City to Old Trafford in a match that could all but mathematically decide the league championship.
“We are at a crucial stage of the season and have to stay sharp,” backup goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard said. “I think you can feel it in the team now, especially with the more experienced players, that we’re entering the late stage of the season when all the medals are going to be given out.”
Robin van Persie was signed from Arsenal in the hopes that he can make a difference in winning medals, and his 19 goals are second in the Premier League to Luis Suarez’s 22 for Liverpool. The forward has six goals in eight career meetings with the Black Cats, but none in three visits to the Stadium of Light.
While United are eying trophies, Sunderland are trying to stay clear of the drop. They’re four points ahead of 18th-place Wigan, but have played one more match than the Latics.
That gap may disappear soon. After hosting United, the Black Cats will visit Chelsea next weekend, and they’re 1-1-15 in the last 17 matchups with the Blues.
Still, defender Titus Bramble is being positive about Sunderland’s chances.
“You never know in this league and that’s why it’s the best league in the world,” he told the team’s official website. “Anyone can beat anyone.”
That task will be made a lot tougher now that captain Lee Cattermole (knee surgery) and forward Steven Fletcher (ankle) are out injured for the rest of the season. Fletcher, who leads the club with 11 goals, was hurt during Scotland’s 2-1 loss to Wales in a World Cup qualifier on Friday.
Craig Gardner will try to pick up the scoring slack, and he has four goals in eight matches after scoring on a penalty kick in a 1-1 draw against Norwich City on March 17. The midfielder hasn’t scored in seven meetings with Manchester United.
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