Manchester United’s under 18s started the day in a good position at the top of the Premier League North table, but the pressure to win was on, with rivals Manchester City only two points behind.
Sunderland, meanwhile, were bottom and looking to cause an upset.
The home side started the game well, scrapping and winning duels in midfield. United were given an early scare when a long ball was played from defence to attack and center back Ryan Bennett’s pass back to the keeper was short and was latched on to by Sunderland striker, Harry Gardner. His prod past United goalkeeper, Dermot Mee, rolled just wide.
Sunderland’s early intensity lessened, however, and United passed themselves into the game more.
On the 14th minute, Charlie McNeill scored his 20th goal of the season after 16 year-old Norwegian, Isak Hansen-Aaroen carried the ball from his own half at pace, from the right of midfield inside, and played it into the run of Alvaro Fernandez from left back. The Spaniard squared it to Hansen-Aaroen, whose glanced shot was cleared off the line, only to fall to McNeill at the back post. McNeill smashed it into the roof of the net.
For a period after the goal, United passed it short well and controlled possession with Hansen-Aaroen, Dillon Hoogewerf and McNeill heavily involved but Sunderland pushed back and started to create chances.
On the 25th minute, midfielder, Caden Kelly picked the ball up in space on the left, just outside United’s box, and hit a strong whipped strike on target. The shot was tipped over by Mee.
United’s winger Emile Forson nearly scored in the 34th minute, arriving into the box and getting on the end of Martin Svidersky’s cross. His header was just over.
A minute later, Hoogewerf received an elbow from his own man and went down for treatment. After the stoppage, the game became scrappy again.
Forson nearly had a goal again on the stroke of half-time. He put the ball in the net, from a good run in behind and cross from McNeill, but it was flagged just offside.
The second half started more comfortably for United than the first. Their midfield three of Charlie Savage, Svidersky and Hansen-Aaroen moved it around well and in the 50th minute, McNeill nearly had another. Another good run and cross from Fernandez from the left, the ball bounced before arriving to McNeill. He wasn’t able to steer his close-range header on target.
The Red Devils dropped their intensity after that and Sunderland created chances.
Gardener again got in behind and was one-on-one with keeper Mee on the left of the six yard box, but he pulled his shot into the side netting.
United’s captain, Will Fish, pulled off some vital defensive blocks to keep Sunderland out.
On the 68th minute, Zidane Iqbal came on for Forson for United and made a difference.
The game swayed back and forth, however, and Sunderland made the breakthrough in the 70th minute.
They gained territory in United’s half and won a corner; the set piece was well taken. Sunderland’s captain, defender, Josh Baggs was most alive in the box and powered his free-header in, moving towards the near post.
It was a shock for United, but they responded by instantly upping the tempo.
On the 75th minute, after good, quick interplay between Hansen-Aaroen, Iqbal and McNeill, United won a corner. It was met with a good header at the keeper from Fish. Fish struck the rebound at his own man on the ground and the ball deflected fortunately to Fernandez who poked it in in the six yard box. The regained lead was a relief.
Three minutes later, United cemented the points. Hansen-Aaroen and Fernandez were heavily involved again down the left. Fernandez’ whipped cross found Hoogewerf free at the back post and his header went into the top right corner.
Sunderland showed spirit and continued to pressure and create chances at times. Fish cleared one off the line but United also hit the crossbar at the other end.
With a minute to go, Hansen-Aaroen capped off a brilliant performance with a superb solo goal. In space on the right again, McNeill hit a hard, low ball to the edge of Sunderland’s box where Hansen-Aaroen picked it up. He executed a typically nimble dribble through three defenders, shifting it onto his right in the box, and shot low to the keeper’s right and in.
It was a hard fought win in the end, despite the scoreline.