Manchester United produced an efficient performance at the Stadium of Light to register a comfortable 1-0 win courtesy an unfortunate own goal from Sunderland defender Titus Bramble. United dominated the first half and perhaps should have been out of sight at the end of it with Sunderland keeper Simon Mignolet having a busy afternoon. Sunderland made more of a game of the contest in the second half, but never really threatened the United goal, who didn't need to really move out of second gear to seal all three points.
With one eye towards their FA Cup Quarter-final replay against Chelsea on Monday, and with so many of his stars having been in action in midweek, Sir Alex Ferguson sprung the changes to his Manchester United side for the trip to Sunderland in the early kick-off on Saturday. Sunderland meanwhile were looking to avoid getting dragged into the relegation dog fight, and desperately needed some points from this game.
Robin van Persie was the sole forward as Sir Alex went in with a 4-4-1-1 formation with Shinji Kagawa slotting in behind the Dutch striker. Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez were both missing from the subs bench too, with Danny Welbeck providing striking cover. Anderson lined up alongside Michael Carrick in central midfield with Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia providing the width. Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling were the central defensive pairing with Rafael and Alex Buttner deployed as the full backs.
Sunderland too made a host of changes, though theirs were largely injury enforced. Titus Bramble and former United utility man John O'Shea protected Simon Mignolet in goal while Phil Bardsley and Tottenham loanee Danny Rose were protecting the wings. Adam Johnson and James McClean provided the natural width with Alfred N'Diaye coming in for Seb Larsson and Craig Gardner returning to midfield. Benin international Stephane Sessegnon was afforded the free role behind January acquisition Danny Graham, who led the line in place of the injured Steven Fletcher.
The first half was all United, with Sunderland seemingly forgetting to turn up at all, and being completely out-passed and out-played all over the park.
United's first chance fell to Van Persie rather predictably, but the Dutchman's header from a Rafael pass was timid and easily gobbled up by Mignolet.
United had the freedom of the Stadium of Light to operate and after some speculative efforts, Buttner drew a good save out of Mignolet after a surging run down the left.
Ashley Young had made an eventful start to the game, and after wasting an early free-kick saw his mishit cross tipped over the bar by the Belgian keeper.
It took United 27 minutes to get the goal their general play had deserved, but the way in which the ball found itself in the back of the net was quite fortunate. Robin van Persie's strike from the left was heading comfortably wide before being turned into his own goal by the long legs of Titus Bramble, who was having a decent game keeping RVP quiet till then.
Manchester United were forced into a first half substitution with Rafael hobbling off with Jonny Evans taking his place and Chris Smalling moved across to right back to realign things at the back.
Suddenly Mignolet was having a busy afternoon with Van Persie raining shots on goal which the Belgian was doing well to keep out. Sunderland were amazingly still in the game at the end of an insipid first half in which they found themselves just a goal down.
The Black Cats couldn't have played any worse in the first half, so they were always going to do better in the second, and to their credit at least there were waves after waves of United attacks on goal.
The second half took a while to heat up and there was very limited action for both keepers. David de Gea's busiest moment came when he was clattered into by his own teammate Vidic, and fortunately for United, who were in a compromised position with both men down, the referee blew the whistle. A drop ball was awarded on the edge of the box much to the disappointment of the home fans, and the chance came and went just as quickly.
United were by now largely playing on the break, and it wasn't till the 80th minute that Mignolet was called into action, keeping out Buttner's ambitious long range effort.
It was a spirited effort by Sunderland in the second half, but they didn't really offer anything of note in the game to ever really pose a threat to the United defence.
Van Persie had a terrific late chance to seal the points, but was brilliantly denied at point blank range by Mignolet, but it mattered not as Manchester United saw out the game to extend their lead at the top of the League standings to a massive 18 points. Sunderland meanwhile are slipping steadily closer to the drop zone and will surely start feeling the breath of the bottom four below them.
Sunderland: Mignolet, Bardsley (Larsson 79'), Bramble, O'Shea, Rose (Colback 85'), Johnson (Wickham 76'), Gardner, N'Diaye, McClean, Sessegnon, Graham.
Subs: Westwood, Larsson, Wickham, Kilgallon, Colback, Mangane, Mandron.
Man Utd: De Gea, Rafael (Evans 32'), Vidic, Smalling, Buttner, Valencia, Carrick, Anderson (Cleverley ), Young, Kagawa (Welbeck 79'), van Persie.
Subs: Lindegaard, Evra, Evans, Nani, Welbeck, Cleverley, Powell.
Score: Sunderland 0-1 Manchester United (Bramble 27' og)