Friday, December 26, 2008

United-Stoke City: Berbatov shines, Ronaldo fades

Manchester United set the stage for a long second-half run at the Premiership title today by traveling to Stoke City during a loaded matchday in the top fight.

United were probably quite knackered after a week-long trip to Japan which saw them informally crowned "Best club in the world" after winning the FIFA Club World Cup.

United's starting eleven was a bit misshapen on paper; Vidic slotting into right-center back as Evans filled in for a knocked Ferdinand, and Mancunian archlords Neville, Scholes, and Giggs all receiving rare starts. Fletcher partnered Scholes in the middle, with Tevez and Rooney each roaming along the frontline.

Scholes was happy to spray the ball around all game, stretching a small Stoke City pitch. His first errant pass was in the 46th minute when he simply missed his target going downfield. Fletcher himself was anonymous throughout virtually all of the match, which is rare for the Scot who has announced himself as a very reliable footballer this season.

Although United played well throughout the first half, it was Stoke who had the most opportunities, although most were half-chances. United were passing well, and the defense was imperious, as usual, with Vidic monster gobbling up header after header.

Passions from the first half carried over and were amplified in the second. Both Rooney and Ronaldo were flying about the pitch, the Englishman usually with his studs showing, and the winger usually ending up on his backside.

Wilkinson, Stoke's right-back, owned Ronaldo all match. In fact, if they were imprisoned together as cellmates, it is clear who would have assumed the more subservient role, and the accompanying moniker usually reserved for dogs or fast women.

As Ronaldo increasingly became unstuck, he lashed out at the right-back, while on the ground, but it again went unpunished as similar actions had in United's last domestic match. Wilkinson did United and Ronaldo a huge favor, though, when he lunged into the winger on 72 minutes, getting sent-off and likely preventing Ronaldo from inevitably doing the same.

Our Portuguese star asset has carried this team over the past few years, on and off the pitch. Ronaldo arrived the summer Beckham departed, and the Englishman may as well have shared some choice words for the young winger at the airport, as Ronaldo picked up where Beckham left off, being the central focus for the club in both marketing and attacking.

The pressure, though, is clearly getting to the winger. Much of it is self-administered. He is desperate to prove to everyone that he is the best footballer in the world, despite it already being a widely-held belief.

However, last year, and especially in the year prior, Ronaldo didn't try to prove anything; he just played his football. But now, as arrogance and expectation take their toll on the young man, he fades further and further into the poor form that has characterized the 2009 campaign for the winger.

Tevez and Rooney play like doppelgangers of one-another, the major difference being the demeanor each assumes doing it. Rooney swears and charges brashly around the pitch, throwing elbows and generally just causing a raucous. Tevez, though, is never seen complaining, whining, or diving; he plays with great honesty and humility. Is this hubris not the surest sign of real class?

Rooney and Tevez rarely use their left foot, either to bring the ball to their right side, or carry the ball to their left, something which sells short so much of either's attacking potential. Each like to receive the ball on the left side, drop a shoulder, and carry it right, usually dinking it off to the overlapping Neville, before running back to the center, having accomplished nothing.

Berbatov was introduced on 64 minutes and his versatility would change the match.

Playing with his back to goal outside the penalty box right, the Bulgarian demigod coolly one-timed a forward pass to feed Neville down the flank. Berbatov seized upon the resulting cross and elegantly, with the faintest of touches, took it first past a bemused defender before poking it with his second touch to a well-positioned onrushing Tevez.

Tevez celebrated the goal like he was it's chief architect, while Berbatov, ever in-style, took a moment to keep his own counsel, fists clenched self-affirmed, before joining the United players sprinting to celebrate with the jubilant Argentinian.

Everyone comes out a winner, though. Tevez gets his name on the score-sheet, just his second goal this season domestically, and United gather the first three points of many to be accumulated in the coming months.

Berbatov, ever the pariah, was the unsung factor again for United, the deft hands that pick the lock for other players to kick open the door.

Player Ratings:

Van der Sar: [7.5] Made some decent saves. Goalkeepers usually get the short end of the stick when it comes to player ratings, but he did nothing wrong today and earned his clean sheet.

Neville: [8] One of his best performances this season. In a physical match, Neville maintained his composure and sent in many trademark crosses, overlapping with a real engine.

Vidic: [8.5] Monster devoured headers all game and made some acrobatic tackles on the pitch. Is there a more consistently dominant center-back in Europe? Juventus' Chielinni comes second to the Serbian who has few peers.

Evans: [7.5] Did precisely what was asked of him, and did it without aplomb or fanfare. Got forward for some set-pieces and put his head in where it hurts. Evolving young defender. He might have saved Roy Keane at Sunderland if Ferguson had loaned him there, as Keane had hoped.

O'Shea: [6.5] Did very little going forward. It's hard to fault him, but he's got big shoes to fill in that position.

Giggs: [6] Ineffective all match.

Fletcher: [6.5] Faded into anonymity for much of the match, but a stellar performer all season.

Scholes: [8.5] The Ginger Prince put 91 solid minutes under his belt, fizzing the ball up and down the pitch, using different techniques for each pass. Pure joy to watch. His engine is more suited for a Fiat than a Ferrari, but his role in the club has been tailored for the demises that age brings.

Ronaldo: [5] His worst game in what is, thus far, his worst season at United. What is going on inside his head, only he knows, but the boy needs a rest, a tongue-lashing, or a really huge joint to get himself squared away.

Rooney: [7] Passed well. Couldn't really run past anybody. Missed one really nice chance. But, he is a great footballer, not always conducive to scoring, but still connects play quite well.

Tevez: [7.5] An extra .5 for scoring. Tevez never complains or bemoans decisions, he plays with great austerity and class. I was happy to see him so happy after scoring, but, does United really need both Rooney and Tevez? If Tevez is unhappy playing second-fiddle, perhaps greener pastures await the legendary Argentine.

Berbatov (62 mins): [8] Does what he usually does: Look unassuming and innocent, link play with deft touches and a great sense of positioning, and ultimately provide the x-factor that a stagnant United offense needed.

As Scholesy continues to regain his fitness, while Ronaldo hopefully takes a step back, United, with Berbatov, can move forward to the New Year with real stars in their eyes.

ESPN & the EPL in America

Why does soccer, European, American, or otherwise, not find the same scope of coverage on American television as other major sports?

The simple answer would be to accept that the sport is simply not as popular as its three major competitors. Analysis of the Nielsen viewing numbers may offer insight into the phenomenon and answer the question: Are people watching?

Perhaps they are not, and the lack of interest in America for the world’s most popular game is related to our own consumption of sports in this country. Are Americans simply used to watching the “big three”, just as the major networks are used to broadcasting them?

Or perhaps there is, in fact, a contingent of Americans, combined with Europeans living in America, who are willing and waiting to mass-consume world football as a marketable, elite sport.

Major world and European soccer tournaments find substantial viewership bi-yearly on ESPN, but strangely domestic American club soccer has failed to contend with baseball, basketball, or football for the sustained interest of most Americans.

Although there are some signs that soccer’s maligned trend for anonymity in America may be curbing, it is unlikely to change drastically in the short-term. Many reasons for this phenomenon are found within the production philosophies of soccer’s major carriers, the psyche of the American sporting public, and the sentiments cultivated from the sporting media, a negative image returned in kind by most consumers.

Producing the game

Although there is a contrast in production quality between the major soccer broadcast networks in America, ESPN and Fox Soccer Channel (FSC), the American sporting production philosophy is shared by both. The UEFA European matches on ESPN have higher ratings than MLS games because the European game is more popular; but, there is another difference which may be impactful.

In-match commentary for UEFA matches are provided by relatively established European commentators, using the stereotypically British combination of an officious, English play-by-play announcer with an opinionated northerner giving color remarks. Having drawn over one million viewers in last year’s finale, the long-running competition is a reasonably successful formula for the Bristol, Ct. sports network.

However, a slightly different, more contrasting philosophy is employed during the production of the American MLS Soccer brand, as evidenced during MLS Primetime on Thursday nights, utilizing a production style derived from the successes of other American sports.

Many commentators are former players; producers utilize soft stories to build human interest; sideline reporters give the “inside scoop” on touchline proceedings; and hackneyed studio analysts sustain consumer attention during extensive pregame, postgame, and halftime packages.

In short, while ESPN has the dedicated money to producing visually attractive soccer in high-definition, with many cameras and original commentary, it fails by trying to present the MLS as an American sport, instead of embracing the successful elements in English and European leagues.

Evoking the production models of other American sports has not proved successful for ESPN and MLS; the formulaic veins of commentary and production cater to the fans that are already interested in the other sports where the formulas originated.

They are unlikely to enjoy soccer casually, and not immediately; while soccer fans, European-American, or slightly socially deviant Americans, often gravitated to the sport sometimes by a dislike of these formulas, are left to consume these design and delivery elements derived from the sports they have grown to dislike.

Short of hiring established commentators from Europe to cover MLS matches, ESPN could break from English tradition to promote younger Americans to provide fresh commentary, provided they are knowledgeable.

In 2006, Allen Hopkins joined ESPN from Fox, where he had provided unique, vibrant commentary to European and South American matches, to cover the World Cup. However, his role was reduced to working soft angles and covering sideline field reporting.

Instead, Dave O’ Brien, a baseball announcer who had never covered the game before, handled play-by-play coverage during 2006, which led to many Americans switching to Univision, a Spanish-speaking cable channel, to avoid listening to O’Brien’s ignorant relaying of the game.

Fox Soccer Channel takes a similar approach to production, but fails admirably. Despite being part of one of the largest media conglomerates in the world, FSC appears to suffer from a lack of resource and identity.

FSC allows advertisements to take up roughly 30 percent of the viewing screen, at times, during matches. Fox Soccer Report, the SportsCenter of FSC, is actually produced independently in Canada by a private media company.

The disparity in quality between the Report’s set and design and that of its ESPN counterpart is glaringly apparent at first glance: FSR tries to adopt the futuristic, graphical appeal of its competitor but falls short drastically without the funding to produce it visually.

FSC has tried to push original programming, but few analysts and programs have managed to stand the test one season brought.

However, FSC gets one aesthetic right, generally sub-contracting the commentary for its EPL broadcasts from the British announcers at the match, which leads to a since of authenticity and realism. Generally, ESPN studio analysts are just that; in the studio, while their commentary teams are often in Connecticut as well, when the action is taking place overseas.

Ratings, hopes up in 2008

In March 2008, after a full season with MLS, ESPN invested $64 million in an eight-year deal with MLS. The deal featured a regular Thursday night time slot and high-definition video and audio feeds.

JP Dellacamera, former professional and American national team player, and current analyst for ABC/ESPN, said: “I’m encouraged by the way ESPN is talking about covering MLS this year and like the dedication they seem to have for not just the MLS but for soccer as a whole.”

European club matches also performed well: The 2008 UEFA Champions League Final between English clubs Manchester United and Chelsea FC yielded a .8 rating, averaging 798,000 homes and 1,097,000 viewers, the single highest rating for a UEFA match in ESPN’s history, marking the first of 218 UEFA broadcasts on the network when viewership topped the one million mark.

In the summer of the same year ESPN carried all 31 games from the European Championship in Austria and Switzerland. All games were broadcast in high definition. Ratings were very good.

Through 16 matches of the tournament, ESPN2 averaged a .5 rating, up 67 percent from the time period a year before. Through six matches, including the quarterfinals, ESPN averaged a .9 rating, up 80 percent from the prior year.

The final from the tournament yielded a 3.1 overnight rating, which, according to, “shows is that there is a noteworthy, if smaller, audience on American television for big event international soccer outside the World Cup, both with and without local teams to drive it.”

In 2005, ESPN paid $100 million for the broadcasting rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. The Connecticut based giant is also rumored to be interested in the broadcasting rights to the EPL when Fox’s deal expires in 2010. ESPN also recently inked a deal with the Italian Football Association to broadcast Italian top-flight and Italian Cup matches live online

Since 1998, Fox Soccer Channel has also been covering European national and club matches, with much greater density than ESPN. Fox, under Australian giant News Corporation, currently broadcasts English Premier League soccer in America, also having rights to Italian and South American club matches and various international matches.

However, until Oct. 1, FSC was not covered under Nielsen ratings. The Fox channel paid $7.5 million a year to be rated by Nielsen, the rating system used to gauge television watching habits in America.

“This is a big step for our network,” said David Sternberg, executive vice president and general manager of Fox Soccer Channel. “It will really put us on the map with the advertising community in a way we haven’t been.”

Early reports were outstanding. EPL viewership totals on the channel are just below ESPN2 MLS numbers, even though the EPL is aired on weekend mornings on a channel that goes to 33 million homes, compared to the prime-time spot on ESPN2—a network that reaches 96 million households—that the MLS enjoys.

The FSC broadcast of Manchester City-Liverpool, at 10 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 5, yielded 224,000 viewers, scarcely less than the 261,000 viewers tuning in, on average, to watch MLS Primetime Thursday on ESPN2.

Throughout the first two weeks of Nielsen coverage of FSC, European club matches severely outdrew domestic matches on the channel. MLS broadcasts of DC United-Chivas USA drew 39,000 viewers and FC Dallas-Toronto FC drew 32,000 viewers, while a college game between the University of South Florida and Louisville drew 20,000 viewers.

Matches between Manchester United-Blackburn and Liverpool-Manchester City drew over 200,000 viewers each. Both top-rated matches beat out NASCAR coverage airing concurrently on Speed, and the Liverpool-Manchester City match beat out NFL Primetime coverage airing concurrently on ESPN.

While soccer is not nearly as successful as other, dominant American sports, the recent data on both ESPN and FSC reveals promising prospects for the success of soccer on American airwaves. There is a substantial demographic for consuming European club soccer, as evidenced by the Nielsen ratings, if the content is delivered in the right way to the right people.

Time for ESPN to fully embrace the game

Fox Soccer Channel is credited with almost a decade of experience broadcasting EPL games, with little resources, against the grain of prevailing American sports culture.

The lack of dedication from the echelons at News Corporation, though, means FSC, in addition to being in standard definition, does not have the money to spend on the proper production and promotion of the game on the channel. Nor can they create quality original programming and otherwise capitalize on the exclusive featuring of the popular league on cable television.

Without the required funding and dedication from its front offices, Fox will likely be forced to relinquish the torch to ESPN, and the sport itself should benefit.

The coverage of the English top flight on ESPN has become a prospect in 2010, when the deal with Fox Soccer Channel and the EPL expires. ESPN’s recent deal in November, 2008 with Irish broadcaster Setanta over coverage of lower league English matches highlights a possible working relationship to broadcast EPL matches. An editor at editor describes it thus:

"If ESPN can make a move like this, what’s stopping them from aggressively bidding for the TV rights to the Premier League when they go on the auction block next year? Fox Soccer Channel currently owns the TV rights in the United States and sub-licenses many of the games to Setanta Sports, but Fox’s ownership of the rights will be in serious jeopardy if ESPN decides to throw its hat in the ring."

Viewing numbers already indicate niche, morning broadcasts of the EPL on ESPN would yield very positive numbers, as the FSC broadcasts of EPL already compete numerically with ESPN’s soccer coverage, despite being shown in less than half the households across the country, as stated.

ESPN has the monetary resources, high-definition television infrastructure, and advertising and marketing connections to make the game truly popular in our country.

The international network also has national credibility as a sports media provider; indeed, they are the trusted name for sports in America.

Just as so many millions watch college and professional football on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, so too would the millions of European soccer fanatics tune in to watch high-definition broadcasts of the English Premier League or Italian Serie A during the early weekend mornings, otherwise dominated by reruns and extensive pregame shows.

In addition to the large faction of American-based fans already obsessed with English and European soccer, broadcasting the EPL on ESPN would bring in the casual fan who wakes up to ESPN anyway. MLS would invariably benefit from soccer’s increased exposure, especially as ESPN could advertise MLS matches during EPL games to casual and avid fans.

However, for the cruel cycle of soccer history in America to break, it requires the courage and dedication of the American sports media, projected to the viewing public with authenticity. Soccer is a simple and natural game, to be viewed intuitively, without constant replays, montages, sideline reports, and other predominant American aesthetics.

Respect to the tradition of the sport, although foreign in origin, is required; America did not invent this game, as it did the other three flagship sports, but we can still embrace it.

A dedication to soccer from the trusted Disney Company would bring great validity to the game across the American sporting consciousness: If ESPN takes it seriously, the American viewing public, and the American sports fan, will too.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

United: Berbatov on song; Vidic in form, Others not

United travel to Tottenham this weekend after a regrettable showing midweek against Aalborg.

Several United players were not paying attention: Nani, Giggs, Tevez, Ferdinand, and even Rooney underperformed quite egregiously.

Let's start with Nani: He may be the worst footballer on the team. His corner-kicks are poor—they rarely beat the first defender. He is strong, fast, and knows tricks, but how to use them and when to use them is what eludes him. Nor does he know when to pass or, generally, how to do it.

Giggs cycles between performing averagely in Carling Cup matches and being outclassed during Premier League cameos. He could not figure out how to unlock a defense that was not complicatedly fastened. Giggs' through ball on three minutes was his best pass of the game, one of the few with any quality.

One thing appears certain: Nemanja Vidic is better than Rio Ferdinand. On form, throughout this year and last, Vidic is the best central-defender in the world. Ferdinand doesn't hesitate to remind the viewing public that he's still susceptible to losing focus and getting beaten. Considered broadly one of the best defenders in the world, Ferdinand benefits from his partnership more than he provides.

Tevez was a bulldog chasing cars. Desperate for a goal, he often leaves the very position he needs to occupy in order to score it. His head might be flustered, which is a shame considering how long he's had on the bench to get focused.

It's hard to suggest a player who recently scored four goals in Carling Cup match is not in form, but only one of his goals suggested good form, the others being opportunistic. Of course, it's far more important how well you are playing, and how capable you are, than how many goals you are actually scoring. Good play invariably results in more goals, over time.

Unfortunately, like Tevez, Rooney rarely dribbles across his body. Defenders surely are catching on that both will usually avoid dribbling with their left foot, or to their left side.

A commentator during one of United's recent games showered praise on Rooney, stating his maturation was underway, that, in fact, this season was the one he'd grow up in. Sadly, though, against Aalborg he showed little composure, flying around the park angrily.

Against a team generally lacking in class, a star player should be able to maintain his countenance. He might pick up a European ban for his troubles, and he might deserve it, too.

One thing Rooney can do is drop his shoulder, feigning left before going right. His best goals are scored in this manner—it may even be his trademark. But he doesn't do it enough, and his attacking play is usually stagnant when dribbling against defenders.

Anderson played well enough against the Danish side. When he dribbles past other midfielders he brings a unique element to United's attack. While both Carrick and Fletcher are playing very well consistently this season, both will pass long before they have to carry the ball.

Scholes ultimately entered to spray some balls around, but overall United weren't worried as Celtic led Villarreal 2-0.

With recent antics, Ronaldo has given himself a lot to prove. After mocking Villa fans, being sent off at Manchester City for handling, and walking off the pitch against Sunderland with an injury he recovered from enough to rightfully receive the Ballon d'Or, he clearly is applying a lot of pressure on himself to repeat the dramatic form he carried throughout all last season.

Dimitar Berbatov returns to White Hart Lane for the first time and the reception he will receive is questionable. While Spurs fans were appreciative of his class, the manner in which he was reported to behave himself, at times, was unbecoming to them.

Overall it should be positive, Spurs fans knowing when business simply became business, and remembering how entertaining the Bulgarian was throughout the spell he cast on them.

After the first couple games, Berbatov has been in fine form for United since arriving in September. The quality of his play is not quantified by goals, but Dimitar is not invisible, not to all, when he links up play, winning headers and passing 30-40 yards from goal as United push forward on the counter.

Unfortunately, simply seeing a lack of goals from a player provides an excuse for critics to critique. Commentators often don't invoke their root either, during Berbatov's little displays of grace, sadly unawares to so many. As their craft cultivates so much public opinion, some should, at least, do better. Five assists in the top flight apparently is not indicative of any significant effect to some.

The Bulgarian had several great ideas against Sunderland, flicking Rooney's shot skillfully, before later gliding through two defenders to feed a shot from Ronaldo, after which the winger walked off injured. Berbatov missed a clear header, but it's mere variance; he's a great header of the ball and he'll convert more of those than most.

His best game this year was against Manchester City in the recent 1-0 victory, despite his name not making many subsequent match reports. He brought the ball down in many situations where a turnover would have been expected, enough so neither it would have been commented upon.

He'll want to score more than ever in his return to London, and for a player of his class on form, against a defense that is decent without being great, his hope could and should be realized.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

United-Sunderland: Vidic Monster

United hosted Sunderland Sunday in the unfortunate aftermath of United legend Roy Keane resigning from the Tyneside club. United fans were denied the opportunity to hail their treble-winning captain, and, in his absence, Sunderland were focused only on preserving a scoreless draw.

Serving the second game of a touchline ban, Sir Alex Ferguson was again relegated to the stands, next to longtime friend and club director, the 1966 winner of the Ballon d'Or, Sir Bobby Charlton.

The newly appointed 2008 winner, United winger Cristiano Ronaldo, was the only United player frustrated in the first half as the Reds dominated possession against a recalcitrant Sunderland side.

Ronaldo himself was on both ends of several silly challenges, and continued his tendency to become unstuck during play. Relative to his high standards, the European Footballer of the Year had the poorest of first halves for a United player.

Ronaldo started well, though, and on 11 minutes he flicked on nicely to Berbatov who fired after a good first touch, slightly scuffing the shot at the Sunderland keeper.

On 13 minutes Ronaldo made one of his best runs this year, eventually losing his balance but drawing a foul outside the 18-yard box.

Ronaldo and Rooney combined cleverly on the resulting free-kick. Ronaldo ostentatiously performed his pre-kick ritual before ultimately squaring to Rooney, who fired low into the corner, but Berbatov flicked the shot back at the keeper.

After 27 minutes the statistics didn't lie: United had completed 189 passes to Sunderland's 70, leading 6-0 on shot attempts.

After a half hour the United fans began their first and last Keano chant, as it rang out loudly around Old Trafford throughout several iterations.

A minute later, United's new number 16, Michael Carrick, passed brilliantly with his left-foot but a poor touch from Rooney snuffed out what should have been United's first goal. The first half ended after 10 minutes of rather dull, one-sided football.

As the second half started, Rooney was again seen giving Ronaldo a pep-talk in the center circle, just as he did before the Derby match last Saturday. The second half started as the first half ended; slowly, with United dominating play but failing to find meaningful shots.

The substitutions started after 56 minutes. First Ji-Sung Park came out for Carlos Tevez; Old Trafford's cheers could have been for either player, Park having put in another effective shift in red.

After an hour, an ever-smiling Dwight Yorke enjoyed what was likely his last of many curtain calls at Old Trafford as he came off for Tainio, while Ronaldo nursed a newly- acquired knock.

Several minutes later, quite inexplicably, Ronaldo implored to be substituted, kicking the ball out of bounds, scowling, and walking directly off the pitch, as Fergie scrambled to call down to the touchline.

United played the next three minutes a man down until Giggs entered for Ronaldo and Anderson substituted for Fletcher. Kenwyne Jones came on for the Black Cats, perhaps now fancying their chances of nicking all three points as United pressed desperately.

Giggs and Rafael each showed their age on 70 minutes when the youngster broke through two Sunderland players to drive the ball down the wing, eventually crossing well for Giggs who completely miscued an ambitious volley.

Anderson, dribbling, instead of passing, through midfield, with purpose and pace, gave United a new energy.

Giggs' next contribution was another errant pass which ended a long United build-up, each goal-kick absorbing 30 seconds off the dooming game-clock. United's next attack ended with Giggs sending a long-cross over the heads of each player in both colors, and most spectators.

Berbatov missed the then best chance of the game on 74 minutes, as Carrick crossed onto the Bulgarian's head, six yards out, the flick flying over.

United pressed forward, as ever, with constant half-chances, Vidic heading at the keeper on 80 minutes.

A usually quiet Old Trafford erupted on 81 minutes, immediately inspiring two great opportunities for United, both squandered, as Sunderland clamped down the hatches and rigged for dive.

Vidic and Ferdinand inhaled all of Sunderland's forward play, and United ended the game constantly winning corner kicks as Sunderland invariably cleared.

The anxiety around Old Trafford was palpable.

On 90 minutes, Nemanja Vidic, apparently on his own simple, blunt, attacking intuition, made a lumbering 50-yard-run through midfield as Carrick shot from range, the strike coming off the post to the plundering Serbian. Vidic shanked his shot into the back of the net and Old Trafford's relief valve was finally opened, 1-0.

Rooney picked up his fifth yellow card of the season on 92 minutes, the first card of the game; Referee Rob Halsey, refreshingly, has only issued nine yellow cards in 10 games this season. Rooney will now miss the next Premier League match against Tottenham.

United's trademark for late winners hasn't showcased overly since Van Nistelrooy plowed the grass in Manchester, but Vidic was able to extract one more moment of inspiration from the United's historical pool of brilliance. Three points were vital maintain relative parity with Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool, all having already won today.

A victory like this might tend to be overlooked in the long-run, but the timing is especially crucial as United enter a grueling portion of the season, travelling to Tokyo for the World Club Championships before finishing the year in the famously congested holiday season in the English top flight.

You'd never begrudge Sunderland for circling the wagons in the midst of such a foul time for their club; however, only United fans went home happy today.

Player Ratings:

Van der Sar: [6] Didn't have to do anything. What rating do you give a player who doesn't have to do anything? Six.
Rafael [7]: Played with great energy; wasn't perfect, but another 90 quality minutes under the belt of our future right-back.
Ferdinand: [7.5] Orchestrated our movement into midfield after constantly quelling weak Sunderland attacks.
Vidic: [9] Dominated a quicker Cisse, using positioning and strength imperiously. Inexplicably made a hugely ambitious run, plundering with Serbian single-mindedness, saving three precious points that United hugely deserved. Nickname "monster" earned and deserved.
Evra: [7] Patty did little wrong today, but has enjoyed more attacking success against other teams. One of our most consistent players.
Ji-Sung: [7.5] Showed some skills in addition to his expected doggedness. Unsung Ji-Sung as usual.
Carrick: [8] Getting forward much more than last year. Currently enjoying a run of form stretching over several weeks. Shooting from range with his left-foot, effectively, gives great evidence to his newfound confidence.
Fletcher: [7.5] It's easy to argue how competitive Sunderland's midfield is, but against it, Fletcher looked quite dominating.
Ronaldo: [6.5] Ronaldo's runs last only into the opponent's third where last year, with a healthy ankle, he'd get a good shot off or reach the byline. Ronaldo was frustrated throughout, despite some good play, and eventually just walked off the pitch, his second rather inscrutable act in as many EPL matches.
Rooney [8] Passed and ran well; very mature display. Appears to have Ronaldo's ear, and the winger could use the advice. Rooney is in good form despite lacking goals.
Berbatov [7.5] Berbatov is the classiest player on most pitches he plays on; however, his lack of aggression and sometimes questionably passive decision-making means a lack of overall effect. The class inherent in his balance, touches and reading of the game will be lost in history without the tangible results to support it.