Limp United held at Sunderland
It could have been worse for United, who were second best for long periods, while Sir Alex Ferguson‘s decision to leave key players out of an already depleted side raised eyebrows.
Kick-off was delayed by 20 minutes by a burst water pipe above the United dressing room.
It was a baffling move, especially as both men are set for a two-week rest during the international break; Berbatov has quit the Bulgaria team, while Evra is suspended by France.
And it was not even Javier Hernandez, who scored United’s winner in Valencia on Wednesday, elevated to the starting line-up.
Instead, Ferguson paired Michael Owen with Federico Macheda and the pair were completely neutralised by a strong Sunderland back line in which Michael Turner and right-back Nedum Onuoha caught the eye.
United’s first-half performance was as wet as their changing quarters. They failed to mount a single attack of note, and their inability to string more than two passes together was shocking for a team that prides itself on its slick, attractive play.
Instead, all the football came from the home side, as Malbranque, Zenden and Elmohamady created a succession of chances.
The superb Elmohamady repeatedly bamboozled John O’Shea, playing on the United left in Evra’s absence, while Malbranque thrived in a roaming role that Paul Scholes and Anderson never got to grips with.
After a quarter of an hour, Malbranque got beyond Nemanja Vidic and received a Cattermole through ball, but fired his shot straight at Van der Sar.
Then the Dutch keeper happened to be standing in the right place when Darren Bent deflected a powerful low cross goalwards.
And Zenden came closest of all when his 25-yarder zipped past Van der Sar but came crashing back off the left-hand post.
At the other end, Simon Mignolet was virtually a spectator, and had only one moment of alarm when Nani lined up a free-kick at the edge of the box – but the winger’s insipid sidefoot wide summed up a truly hopeless United performance.
It came as no surprise to see Berbatov appear after the break, replacing the anonymous Owen, who had as much impact on the game as Wayne Rooney did sitting at home with his ankle in a bucket of ice.
And 20 minutes later afterwards Macheda was on his way as Hernandez came on for a cameo appearance.
The changes certainly perked the visitors up, even if they did not have a shot on target – courtesy of a Nani effort from long range – until the 77th minute.
Hernandez showed quick feet and good awareness, while Berbatov had United’s best chance of the game – his strike partner played him through on 81 minutes but he dragged his shot a foot wide of the left-hand post.
Sunderland’s best chances of the second half came through a Bent shot that deflected wide off Vidic – even though the officials awarded a goal kick – and an overhead kick from substitute Asamoah Gyan.
But Steve Bruce was denied his first win over Ferguson in 15 meetings and it ended goalless.
Alex Chick / Eurosport