A Titus Bramble own goal was all that separated Manchester United and Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, but the closeness of the scoreline belied the stark level of comfort for the visitors.
United were far from their best, but the truth was that they didn’t need to be against a woeful Sunderland side. Robin van Persie’s strike which was diverted into the net off of Bramble means United can now revel in the comfort of, at least temporarily, an 18-point lead atop the Premier League.
With an FA Cup quarterfinal replay against Chelsea just 48 hours away, Sir Alex Ferguson left out the likes of Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra. Yet so poor was Sunderland’s performance that United might well have fielded a far weaker side and still come away with a victory.
Now having taken just three points from the last 24 available and with Steven Fletcher and Lee Cattermole ruled out for the season, Sunderland must be getting increasingly anxious looking over their shoulder toward the relegation trap door.
United were comfortable from the off, although admittedly they failed to create clear-cut opportunities. The best they mustered in the early going was a run by marauding left-back Alexander Buttner that ended with his poked shot being blocked behind by Simon Mignolet.
With 27 minutes gone, United took the lead with a goal that epitomized Sunderland’s lackluster performance. Van Persie picked the ball up near the touchline down the left and was allowed to saunter inside the box as Phil Bardsley continually backed off. The Dutchman took the opportunity to fire a shot across goal that was heading wide before it first struck off Bardsley and then took a pivotal deflection off the leg of Bramble and headed into the corner of the net.
United continued to probe in search of a second and it was Van Persie that looked most likely to do the damage as he first had an instant shot held by Simon Mignolet at the near post before his free-kick from the right was tipped over.
After what was surely a stream of aggression from Martin O’Neill during the interval, Sunderland finally found some intensity at the start of the second half and crucially began to apply some pressure to their opponents.
There was slightly more encouragement for the home side going forward too and a cross from Danny Graham was just prevented from reaching the head of Stephane Sessegnon by Jonny Evans, whole Chris Smalling produced a similarly impressive defensive header moments later.
The pressure was shortlived, though, and Sunderland's lack of quality on show in the final third remained startlingly lacking.
United continued to look the side likelier to get the next goal and they probably should have got it two but Van Persie fired too close to Mignolet when clear on goal in the dying seconds.
Despite the best efforts of Sunderland’s fans to encourage their side on to get a potentially precious point, it never looked like coming and the worries will now increase for O’Neill.