Two opinions on United's state

 

THERE appears to be two opinions prevailing about the present state of Manchester United. The first, loud and dramatic, is that they are a team on the slide who, dangerously, have placed their single egg in a basket marked Europe.

This is the view that, says Steve Bruce, is missed more than could have been imagined, especially since Gary Pallister has gone; Eric Cantona is in terminal decline rather than temporary depression, Karel Poborsky is a disaster and as a consequence United have been revealed as a side over-reliant on the muscles of Roy Keane and the potential of David Beckham.

A comparatively meagre haul of nine points from eight games before Saturday and a series of relatively listless displays had given holders to this line some ammunition. The differing view is that United are not struggling, but cruising.

Like a horse travelling easy in the Derby they are content to track the leaders until Tattenham Corner has been turned. According to this "double handful" argument it was always going to take time to adjust to Bruce's departure. Europe can be forgotten until March and Cantona is sure to re discover the inspiration within.

Poborsky can only get better Keane will be back soon and so too will Andy Cole - he plays his return game for the reserves tonight. Of the recent run they say, well, United have now not lost in six and have winnable games against Forest and Leeds on Thursday and Saturday respectively.

Rather conveniently, these 90 minutes provided evidence to support both opinions. For half an hour the Old Trafford side were as mute as their stadium. If Sunderland were not exactly rampant, they were in control, principally because of Nicky Butt's anonymity in midfield in comparison to Kevin Ball's conspicuous aggression.

Cantona was nowhere too while at the back Pallister and David May were unconvincing in the face of Craig Russell's enthusiasm. United were a team lacking direction and it was not until Brian Kidd ventured down from the stand to launch a tirade of orders that the disorientation was dispelled.

Essential to this was the switching of Gary Neville from wide on the right into the middle, a move that enabled United to compete physically with Sunderland's solidity there. Neville's first task in his new role was to win a tackle - something neither Butt nor Paul Scholes had been doing - and now United had a sounder platform from which to attack.

Ryan Giggs and Scholes did so, creating goals for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Cantona - a penalty that broke his three months spell without a League goal - and when Solskjaer added a third two minutes after half time the contest was over and United were flowing.

However, it had taken some time and Peter Reid was correct to say that the first goal was out of the blue: "Had it not gone in when it did, it is conceivable that the Champions would have been in for a long laborious afternoon against spirited survivalists, for it was not obvious from where a spark was going to come.

"Goals change games, though," said Reid, deeply, and when Butt crashed in a header near the hour United had scored four in 22 minutes. There was a final flourish to come from Cantona, chipping in a fifth elegantly off a post, giving those of the optimistic analysis a swagger on their way home.

The pessimists could argue, though, that it was only Sunderland and that for 35 minutes United could not have beaten Brighton. Afterwards Alex Ferguson backed up neither side saying he was having a Christmas break from speaking to the press. He then added: "The scoreline speaks for itself." Does it?