‘Kiko’ rises to the occasion again

Federico Macheda is congratulated by Wayne Rooney on scoring Manchester United’s second goal, which ultimately proved the winner, for the team against Sunderland. Team-mate Gary Neville looks on.-AP

Preoccupied by Ronaldo’s 69th-minute entrance, Sunderland seemed near oblivious to the threat posed by Macheda when he replaced the injured Berbatov. With his first touch the boy wonder diverted a Carrick shot into the bottom corner, a goal that helped preserve United’s title hopes. By Louise Taylor.

Federico Macheda

With Keane’s effective successor, Owen Hargreaves, a casualty of long-term injury, the fact that Sir Alex Ferguson, for a second consecutive Premier League fixture, had the 17-year-old Macheda to thank for preserving United’s title hopes merely emphasised their alarming lack of a midfield enforcer in the Irishman’s indomitable mould. At a time when Michael Carrick’s game appears to be experiencing one of its periodic regressions, this structural flaw threatens Ferguson’s ambitions of Champions League progression at Porto.

Much has been made of United’s new-found defensive fallibilities — they have gone five games without a clean sheet — but the source of such problems often lies farther forward, where the absence of a midfield anchor sometimes placed Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans under excessive pressure. Porto’s scouts cannot fail to have noticed the ease with which Sunderland’s own impressive midfield enforcer, Teemu Tainio, regularly broke up United passing triangles. Or the visitors’ failure to prevent Ricky Sbragia’s side repeatedly feeding outlet balls to their influential right winger, Carlos Edwards.

Keane the player left Old Trafford more than three years ago, but it is just four months since he abruptly quit as Sunderland’s manager. His erstwhile chairman, Niall Quinn claims Wearsiders are “still grieving for Roy” and the home crowd certainly remain far too cross with him for cutting and running to have joined in those “Keano” choruses. Sbragia’s relegation imperilled side have now gone seven games without a win and entertain similarly struggling Hull City on April 18 after suffering four straight defeats. The sole consolation is that this ranked as one of their better performances.

After falling behind when Paul Scholes concluded a move he had initiated, by out-leaping Anton Ferdinand, to connect with a cross from the excellent Wayne Rooney and direct a glancing header beyond Craig Gordon, Sunderland deservedly equalised when Kenwyne Jones forced home Tainio’s cross. Yet whereas Keane’s managerial tenure was characterised by an often justified willingness to take tactical risks, Sbragia’s instinctive conservatism has arguably cost the team dear. His natural inclination is to contain rather than gamble and when Cristiano Ronaldo unzipped his tracksuit top, Sunderland were duly ordered to sit back.

Unusually, Ronaldo was criticised by Ferguson. United’s manager reminded his prize asset that he could not always have his own way before chiding him for recent concessions of possession and unnecessary moaning to referees, but the Portuguese was surely rested ahead of the Champions League game on April 15, rather than dropped.

Preoccupied by Ronaldo’s 69th-minute entrance, Sunderland seemed near oblivious to the threat posed by Macheda when he replaced the injured Dimitar Berbatov — whose ankle knock is not serious — but with his first touch, intended or otherwise, the boy wonder diverted a Carrick shot into the bottom corner. It was slightly harsh on the Wearsiders and especially their former United right back, Phil Bardsley, who had battled manfully against Rooney.

Bardsley believes Ferguson has produced a masterstroke in blooding Macheda now. “It just shows what a great manager Sir Alex is,” he enthused. “I’m not sure every manager in Europe would give a young lad like that such an opportunity at this stage of the season. But a fresh face can give a team a lift at an important time like this and that’s what Macheda is doing. He gives United something different.”

Moreover, Bardsley recognises that the teenager is playing without the fear that so often inhibits senior colleagues when trophies are within touching distance.

“Youngsters don’t really give a damn. They just get on with it,” said Bardsley.

While Keane could have only applauded Macheda’s courage and cleverness, United’s former captain would surely have told his old team-mates they had enjoyed a lucky escape. Whether he will ever admit that walking out on Sunderland was a huge mistake is another matter entirely.

The Results

April 12: Aston Villa 3 (Carew 33, Milner 55, Barry pen-66) drew with Everton 3 (Fellaini 19, Cahill 23, Pienaar 53). Half-time: 1-2; Manchester City 1 (Ireland 28) lost to Fulham 3 (Dempsey 50 & 83, Etuhu 59). Half-time: 1-0.

April 11: Chelsea 4 (Ballack 40, Drogba 48 & 63, Lampard pen-60) bt Bolton 3 (O'Brien 70, Basham 74, Taylor 78). Half-time: 1-0; Liverpool 4 (Torres 5 & 33, Agger 83, Ngog 90) bt Blackburn 0. Half-time: 2-0; Middlesbrough 3 (Sanli 3, Bates 29, King 90) bt Hull 1 (Manucho 9). Halftime: 2-1; Portsmouth 2 (Kaboul 33, Kranjcar 65) drew with West Brom 2 (Greening 48, Brunt 62). Half-time: 1-0; Stoke 1 (Ab Faye 33) drew with Newcastle 1 (Carroll 81). Half-time: 1-0; Sunderland 1 (Jones 55) lost to Manchester United 2 (Scholes 19, Macheda 76). Half-time: 0-1; Tottenham 1 (Pavlyuchenko 65) bt West Ham 0. Halftime: 0-0; Wigan 1 (Mido 18) lost to Arsenal 4 (Walcott 61, Silvestre 71, Arshavin 90, Song Billong 90+2). Halftime: 1-0.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009