Weather permitting, Manchester United will welcome Sunderland to Old Trafford for a Boxing Day clash on Sunday afternoon. And though Sir Alex Ferguson has convincingly had the upper hand on Steve Bruce during the former United defender’s managerial career, Sunday’s showdown shapes up to be a severe test for the league leaders.
Sunderland stand a surprising sixth in the Premier League table, and they’ve taken at least a point from each of the teams above them, including a 0-0 home draw with United on October 2.
The best result of that success against the Premier League’s title contenders is a stunning 3-0 humiliation of Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Nov. 14, a result that helped open the door for United to make their move towards top spot. Fittingly enough, that shock result was spearheaded by none other than on-loan United prospect Danny Welbeck, and not only was that a pivotal result for his parent club, it also marked the start of a brilliant run for the 20-year-old.
In that match, Welbeck capped off a fine individual and team performance with a late goal, and he’s followed that strike with four more in his last five matches, including the solitary goal in Saturday’s 1-0 home win over fellow surprise side Bolton.
Welbeck’s emergence as a scorer over the last month has helped compensate for a lack of recent production from Darren Bent, who’s scored only twice in almost three months after a blistering start to the season. But when Welbeck, Bent, and new signing Asamoah Gyan are all in top form, they make for as fearsome a trio as you’ll see in the Premier League, and it’s a trio that could help Sunderland make a concerted push for a top-six finish and a spot in Europe. But fortunately for United and unfortunately for Sunderland, it’ll only be a twosome on Sunday, as Welbeck will be unavailable for the Wearsiders.
Welbeck’s ability to build off of his recent form and keep it up for the duration will be key to a serious Sunderland push, but it’s also a double-edged sword for Bruce and the Black Cats. Not only will his absence be greatly felt when Sunderland visit Old Trafford, but in the big picture, a successful campaign dents Sunderland’s hopes of signing Welbeck permanently.
Sir Alex Ferguson has already stated that Welbeck will be returning to United at the end of the season, and if he’s able to keep producing at a high rate between now and then, he’ll head into the summer with as good a chance as he’ll ever have to nail down a future at Old Trafford.
Competition for opportunities in attack this season was going to be tight, especially with the signing of Javier Hernandez, so loaning Welbeck (and Mame Biram Diouf as well) was the right move. And even with Wayne Rooney’s loss of form and injury layoff and Michael Owen’s spells out of action, it’s still the right decision, because Welbeck needed the regular Premier League experience, which he wouldn’t be getting at Old Trafford right now.
He won’t be cracking the starting lineup on a regular basis next season either, but he should have his name in the mix to be third in the pecking order up front. Right now, Chicharito would appear to have the inside track on that spot, but I’d think that notching 10-plus Premier League goals and several assists this season would make Welbeck a serious contender as well.
Welbeck’s versatility (and desire) to slot in either as a striker, out wide, or even in the center of midfield, also helps his cause, because that opens up more potential roles for him.
It remains to be seen what United elect to do in the summer transfer season, or if Welbeck decides that being a part-time starter at United is better than being a full-time starter for a side like Sunderland. But if it does happen that Welbeck ends up being available for sale in several months’ time, he sure won’t be sold on the cheap.
Reports in the summer had United’s valuation of Welbeck at £8m, which many clubs of Sunderland’s stature (not a knock in the least) won’t readily pony up for someone who came into this season with only two Premier League starts and eight Premier League appearances. By not only earning valuable Premier League experience but also showing that he’s got the goods to be a hit at the top, it’s safe to assume that valuation has risen.
And with the form that he’s in at the moment, it looks like the double-digit goal mark will be reached sooner rather than later, which is both a dream and a nightmare for Steve Bruce.
It’s some pretty simple math, really:
Double-digit Premier League goals in a season + 20-year-old + English forward + on Manchester United’s books = £20m.
Okay, I’m somewhat kidding there. Maybe. But whether it’s £10m, £14.6m, or £18.2m, Sunderland will have to loosen up those purse strings if they do harbor serious intentions of signing Welbeck permanently. Of course, it shouldn’t be overlooked that they’ve spent eight figures on a new striker in each of the last two summers, but would they top the club record for a third year running on Welbeck based on one solid season?
There may also be another factor that makes extended success for Welbeck a full-on win for United. United have been heavily linked with promising Sunderland midfielder Jordan Henderson, who started on his senior England debut in last month’s defeat to France. Figures of £20 or £25m have been bandied about for the 20-year-old, but Sunderland’s open interest in a permanent deal for Welbeck could both aid United’s hopes of landing Henderson and significantly decrease the amount of cash required to do so. Are Sunderland willing to give up one difference-maker to land another?
Last but not least is his indirect impact in aiding United’s title push, as shown by his performance at Stamford Bridge. Sunderland, who are unbeaten at home this season, host Chelsea and Tottenham in February, and there are also visits to Arsenal (March 5) and City (April 2), both of whom have already slipped multiple times at home this season. If Welbeck can step up and deliver results that keep the balance in United’s favor, that’ll be worth a Premier League winners’ medal, or at least a little end-of-season bonus or pay rise!
In the end, as nice as it is to see Welbeck on fire, or better yet, we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves based on one hot run. We’ll see if Welbeck can continue to have the hot hand (or feet, rather), but if he can, it’s nothing but a good thing for Manchester United.
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