United aim to silence critics
Sunderland - Manchester United have a golden opportunity to silence the critics proclaiming their demise when the Premier League leaders travel to struggling Sunderland on Saturday.
By the time United kick off at the Stadium of Light, they could have been leap-frogged by Liverpool, who host Blackburn in Saturday's early match, but a victory for the champions would immediately restore them to top spot.
Including Wednesday's error-strewn 2-2 draw with Porto in the Champions League, Sir Alex Ferguson's side have now conceded 10 goals in their last four matches and pundits are beginning to question United's ability to get over the finish line in the Premier and Champions Leagues.
United's recent wobble, which has seen them win just once in four matches, has allowed both Liverpool and Chelsea, who trail by four points, back into the title race.
A key factor in the Old Trafford club's recent slump has been the sudden defensive meltdown. Ferguson has had to endure regular injuries and Rio Ferdinand continues to be troubled by a groin problem that also affects his back, while Jonny Evans sustained a groin injury in the draw with Porto and is also set to miss the Sunderland clash.
United are still without Wes Brown, who has missed much of the season with an ankle injury, while the young Brazilian full-back Rafael da Silva is unlikely to play again this season due to a similar injury.
To add to United's problems, Wayne Rooney is doubtful for the game against the Black Cats with a rib injury and Dimitar Berbatov is set to be missing for another week.
Despite United's problems, they should still be strong enough to beat a dismal Sunderland side, who are just three points clear of the relegation zone after winning only one of their last eight league matches.
United's Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar is adamant they can turn it around and has challenged his team-mates to re-discover their fine defensive form.
"It's not that the goals we are conceding are great goals from our opponents," he said.
"Of course, we have to sort that out and start focusing on what we did very successfully for a long time this season.
"We need to get back to that way of defending and then we should be okay.
"We had a hard game on Sunday, and again on Tuesday. We need to make sure we focus again for Saturday against Sunderland."
Black Cats boss Ricky Sbragia is under pressure after his side failed to win any of their last six matches and he is likely to be without defender George McCartney and striker David Healy with calf and groin problems respectively.
Finnish midfielder Teemu Tainio could make a first appearance since suffering a knee injury in February.
A lack of goals has been the key to Sunderland's slump. The club's two main strikers Djibril Cisse and Kenwyne Jones have not managed a goal between them in more than a month.
Yet Scotland goalkeeper Craig Gordon is adamant that Sbragia's team can pull themselves out of trouble.
"There's no escaping it, and that's where you see the true character of the players," Gordon said.
"We're better off than three teams below us so we're not in the worst position, we roll our sleeves up and fight for every point possible.
"We've got players in this dressing room that have experience of last year and we're desperate to ensure we get the same outcome this season."