Relentless Man United see off sorry Sunderland

Posted by Mark Payne

Manchester United recorded their seventh straight league victory with a 1-0 win over a sorry Sunderland side at the Stadium of Light and are cruising in this season's title race - 18 points clear at the time of writing, with Manchester City still to play. Fears about fatigue and the overuse of their players on international duty proved ill-founded as a first-half goal from Robin van Persie, who played all but four minutes of Netherlands' international double header, via Titus Bramble's knee proved sufficient to despatch the Wearsiders.

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Two minutes after the final whistle of the last game of the Premier League at this ground last season, Sunderland fans, who had seen their side lose 1-0 to United, celebrated City snatching the title against QPR in the most improbable of manners by doing the Poznan. It was not the kind of behaviour that endears you to people and, despite Monday's upcoming FA Cup match against Chelsea, United had only one thing on their mind here. Revenge. They duly obliged.

In some ways, all football matches are defined by the team-sheet. With the FA Cup quarter-final replay against the Blues looming on Monday, this one held more intrigue than most. Sir Alex Ferguson was delighted to receive all of his personnel back from their national squads without a single new injury to report, and United lined up with Alexander Buttner drafted in at left-back alongside Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling and Rafael in the defence. Ferguson opted for Van Persie and Shinji Kagawa up front with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young in support.

United played with more urgency and incision than Sunderland appeared capable of. The Wearsiders are dropping down the table fast, and they didn't look like today was the day they would be turning things around. When United scored after 27 minutes, nobody was surprised.

Van Persie found his scoring boots whilst away with the Oranje, scoring three goals, and brought them back to England with him. Phil Bardsley was not having his best day on the left-hand side, and United sent most of their traffic down that flank in the first half. On one of these attacks, van Persie isolated Bardsley and twisted left and right before unleashing a fearsome shot towards the goal. It dinked off Bramble's knee and into the net.

Although Van Persie celebrated as if he had won the World Cup, the goal was awarded to Bramble. The Sunderland defender didn't seem quite as pleased about it. United were unable to add a second goal before half time but Kagawa caused Sunderland persistent problems with his movement and cunning. The half's other notable event saw a hobbling Rafael replaced with Jonny Evans after 30 minutes.

With a 15-point lead in the title race at kick off, it has been said that United can only really beat themselves from this position. When David de Gea and Vidic clashed heads at a Sunderland corner after 60 minutes, there were concerns the goalkeeper might have been seriously injured. Most people who collide with United captain Vidic live to regret it. Fortunately, De Gea carried on, but it was a delicate moment and a reminder that a one-goal lead is not the plumpest.

Sunderland subsequently enjoyed their most productive period of play. They swung in a series of corners and crosses into the United box but were unable to seriously trouble the champions-elect. The game had needed their presence though. For the opening hour of the match, they had seemed content to let United do all of the running and were engaged in an exercise in damage limitation. Their 40,000-seater stadium demands more enterprise, and they can't continue in that fashion for too much longer.

The final whistle was a reprieve for Sunderland, not least because Van Persie missed a chance when clear in the 96th minute. United were far from their scintillating best, but every 90 minutes seems an ordeal for Martin O'Neill's side at the moment. Their fate has not yet been sealed, but relegation is a real possibility on this form; they registered only a single shot on target here.

Manchester United's destiny is almost certain. Barring a miracle, they will claim their 20th championship in the next few weeks.

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