August 22, 2014

Say this for Manchester United: For all the trials they have endured in this rocky season from the executive levels at Old Trafford to their performances on the pitch, they're not backing down from anyone.

Doubling down on their big-spending philosophy as they continue their fight to claim a place for Europe next season, Manchester United attempt to get back on track Saturday at the Stadium of Light versus relegation-threatened Sunderland.

Manchester United (11-8-6) are currently fifth in the table on 41 points, six behind archrival Manchester City for the final Champions League spot. They're also two ahead of West Ham United and four beyond hard-charging Southampton for the division's Europa League place, a tournament they'll enter in a fortnight in the round of 32 versus Danish side Midtjylland.

Speaking on a conference call with financial analysts Thursday, embattled vice chairman Ed Woodward said Manchester United will continue their primary approach of trying to sign big-name players during transfer windows ahead of grooming players through their academy made famous under Sir Alex Ferguson.

Much of the Scottish manager's success in the 1990s and 2000s came with the fabled "Class of 1992" in which David Beckham, current assistant Ryan Giggs, Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes all progressed through the youth academy and served as the cornerstone for United's rise.

"Some players are bought by other clubs with an eye to them developing into something special in a few years' time," said Woodward, whose team has spent approximately £285 million pounds in the transfer window since manager Louis van Gaal took over last season but has yet to see those investments result in any trophies. "There's a bit more pressure perhaps on some of the bigger clubs to bring in players that are going to be hitting the ground running and top players, verging on world class, almost immediately."

United's big-spending ways have been scrutinised more this season given the meteoric and unlikely rise of Leicester City to the top of the table. The starting XI for the Foxes - who are 12 points clear of Manchester United - cost a mere £22 million in transfer fees and their total team payroll is slightly less than £52 million.

By comparison, United could eventually pay Monaco £57.6 million in transfer fees for their acquisition of Anthony Martial prior to the close of the summer window.

Away from the boardroom's bottom lines and on the field of play, United are coming off a disappointing 1-1 draw at Chelsea on Sunday in which they conceded to Diego Costa in second-half stoppage time. Manchester United carried play for most of the first hour of the match and were rewarded when Jesse Lingard swiveled and scored on a snap shot from close range, but breakdowns defensively late, including a slip by Daley Blind that led to Cesc Fabregas slotting Costa for his goal, prevented United from taking all three points.

The result left van Gaal brooding afterward as he told Sky Sports, "It is deep frustration for me because we were the better team. When you play such a game against a fantastic team like Chelsea, you have to reward yourself.

"When your aim is to be third, second or first then you need to win because the gap is already big and the gap is now bigger than before and that is not good."

That was the precursor to yet another post-match row between van Gaal and the media regarding rumours about his job security, something that was almost inevitable given the match being played at Stamford Bridge, with former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho continuing to be talked about as van Gaal's imminent successor at Old Trafford.

Sunderland (5-5-15) are performing their annual dance with the drop - they've finished 13th or worse seven of the prior eight seasons and 10th in the other one - and are five points from safety, now only four points ahead of last-place Aston Villa.

The Black Cats were fortunate to snag a point last Saturday with a 2-2 draw at Liverpool on goals by Adam Johnson and Jermain Defoe in the final eight minutes.

"What we do know this time around is that 40 will probably be safe," manager Sam Allardyce told his team's website. "It may be 38 because that's been enough recently, but our aim is to win as many games as possible and there's a necessity to start winning a few matches.

"However you get the result is the most important thing to us now."

Saturday's result, though, was a mere afterthought as the football world was left gobsmacked by the large contingent of Reds fans streaming out of Anfield in the 77th minute to protest the rise in ticket prices - a proposal Liverpool's ownership group backed down from Wednesday.

"Big Sam" will be without Johnson, whose contract was terminated by the team Thursday after he pleaded guilty to grooming and sexual activity with a 15-year-old girl at the start of his trial the day before. The two charges carry a jail sentence of up to 2 1/2 years, and Johnson is also fighting two additional charges of sexual activity with a child.

The team released a terse statement Thursday that "in light of Adam Johnson's guilty pleas, the club has today terminated his contract with immediate effect."

That decision further limits Allardyce's options with Younes Kaboul, Seb Larsson, Jeremain Lens and Duncan Watmore all already ruled out due to injury. Fabio Borini, though, is expected to return and make a start.

A 3-0 victory at Old Trafford on Sept. 26 put Manchester United atop the table as Memphis and Wayne Rooney scored on either side of halftime before Juan Mata added a third late. Sunderland are winless in the last 13 (0-4-9) league fixtures at the Stadium of Light versus United since a 2-1 victory March 8, 1997.

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