Sunderland entertain Manchester United in their second game of the new Premier League season, and for once, the hosts will be under less pressure than the visitors.
United travel to the Stadium of Light anxious to get the first win of the Louis van Gaal era. Things didn't go to plan for the new United boss at Old Trafford last week. The Dutchman's new squad was beaten 2-1 by an assured Swansea City team.
As for Sunderland, manager Gus Poyet will likely still be savouring the late point his charges earned away at West Bromwich Albion. Midfielder Sebastian Larsson struck to even a match that ended 2-2.
Before the preview, here's all of the relevant schedule information:
|Sunday, August 24||4 p.m. BST / 11 a.m. ET||Sky Sports 1 / NBC Sports||Sky Go, BBC Sport / NBC Sports Live Extra|
Robin van Persie's Return Vital for United
Things are bleak for Van Gaal at the moment. A stalled transfer recruitment drive and a disappointing result have seen a few storm clouds hover above United's new boss.
However, Van Gaal can get a reprieve via the return of countryman Robin van Persie. The prolific striker was left out of the season's curtain-raiser after his efforts for the Netherlands at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Good training session done this morning. Looking forward to sunday! pic.twitter.com/kbeZTx7TOU— Robin van Persie (@Persie_Official) August 21, 2014
Van Persie's return is very timely. Put simply, the Red Devils desperately need the 31-year-old fit and firing this season.
He can act as a focal point for a team that lacked guile and fluency between the midfield and forward lines against Swansea. BBC Sport reporter Chris Bevan detailed the problem:
More home goals looked most likely at that stage but the closest United would come to taking the lead was when Rooney fired a curling free-kick against the outside of the post.
Instead, after the home side's forward play reverted to aimless balls forward, it was Swansea who found the net, again, making the most of some uncertain defending.
Van Persie is one of the few genuine match-winners in Van Gaal's depleted squad. It's a squad still far from settled.
Van Gaal announced during his pre-match press conference that Marouane Fellaini and Jesse Lingard are unavailable due to injury, along with new signing Ander Herrera, per Sean Mullan of ManUtd.com. The United chief also confirmed that recent acquisition Marcos Rojo is still awaiting a work permit.
Will Van Persie make an immediate difference for United?
Herrera's absence could prove particularly significant. The Basque pass master should be a key figure in Van Gaal's possession-based style of play this season.
Without him, United could struggle to build attacks, just as they did against Swansea.
Jack Rodwell and Larsson Must Dominate United's Midfield
Sunderland must take advantage of a United midfield still in a state of flux. Last week's hero Larsson and new boy Jack Rodwell must boss Van Gaal's Herrera-less group.
It's not beyond the unheralded but solid pair. Larsson is more of a playmaker, a pass-and-move player dating back to his days in Arsenal's youth teams. By contrast, Rodwell offers a good degree of physicality.
That gives Sunderland a complementary blend in the middle, one that could trouble United. The Red Devils are missing some brawn with both Fellaini and the experienced Michael Carrick sidelined.
Sunderland could gain a real numbers advantage with Lee Cattermole also in the middle to offer his usual brand of overtly rough tackling. But the Black Cats won't win just by being rugged.
Poyet's team must own the middle and use the superiority to work the ball and craft chances.
Anything other than a victory will be deemed a disaster for United. This is a game Van Gaal will be expected to win, just as he was against Swansea last week.
However, Poyet's Sunderland will be no easy mark, although the Uruguayan will likely be content if he earns another point. But there'll be no consolation from a stalemate for United.