MANCHESTER, October 2- Manchester United midfielder Michael Carrick believes the champions are hitting form just as their title rivals begin to falter.Both Chelsea, beaten at Wigan last weekend, and Liverpool, who suffered a 2-0 Champions League defeat to Fiorentina in Italy midweek, appear to be going through an early season blip ahead of their Sunday meeting at Stamford Bridge.
But having bounced back from a shock 1-0 defeat by Burnley in August, United have put together a winning run that will be extended to nine matches if they can beat Steve Bruce’s Sunderland at Old Trafford on Saturday evening.
"There’s a lot of belief, confidence and trust in each other in our squad," said Carrick, who scored a spectacular winner in the 2-1 win over German champions Wolfsburg in midweek.
"I think that’s shown this season through the amount of goals we’ve scored in the latter stages of matches. Fitness helps too, but the character and the mental strength we have certainly help."
A huge factor in United’s early form has been the continued excellence of Ryan Giggs. He may be just one month short of his 36th birthday but the Welshman has relished the chance to fill Cristiano Ronaldo’s boots with a string of match-winning displays.
"He’s unbelievable," United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said. "With all the superlatives and praise he’s had over the years, I don’t know how you can add to it. He keeps defying his age."
Wayne Rooney has also taken on more responsibility in the absence of Ronaldo, who now plays at Real Madrid, and the England forward insists the criticism the squad received after the Burnley setback was unjustified.
"Personally I think we came in for some unfair criticism at the start of the season because, although we weren’t playing as well as we can do, we were still winning games," he said.
"Yes we lost to Burnley but we have won every game since and yet this week we still got criticised.
"Of course that’s always going to happen with a club of this size but we bounced back really well, went top of the league last weekend and are looking to carry on from there."
Rooney would love to still be playing alongside Ronaldo but believes team-work can make up for the loss of the Portuguese star.
He added: "Obviously last season the team was based a lot around Cristiano but this year there’s a few more players chipping in with goals, which is great to see."
Sunderland, who currently sit eighth in the table, have had their best ever start to a Premier League season with four wins from their opening seven matches.
It is a record that has fired the enthusiasm of former United defender Bruce, who will tell his side to go out and play undaunted at Old Trafford, believing it is the only way you can possibly get a result there.
"I think a lot of teams go there just to make up the numbers," Bruce said. "They go there and think, ‘If we come away with anything, we’ll be happy.’
"That makes them a little bit intrepid about the whole situation but you can see the ones that grasp it and really enjoy being there.
"If you’ve got anything at all about you, you’ll want to go there and put on a show but you have to play. If you don’t play well, we all know what happens."
Bruce is also hoping to use the match against United to gauge exactly how far his side has come since he took over in the summer.
He added: "You look at how you do against the biggest and best, and this is as big as it gets in the Premier League.
"We’re playing against one of the best teams in Europe, so when you do come up against them, you get a chance to measure yourself against the best. We aspire to what we see in front of us."
United’s Michael Owen is facing three weeks on the sidelines after hurting his groin during the Wolfsburg win. For Sunderland, there are doubts over John Mensah (calf) and Lee Cattermole (heel).