Sir Alex Ferguson's men were far too strong for opponents who will be grateful a one-sided game did not result in an even more harrowing experience. Sunderland were as insipid here as they had been inspired at Stamford Bridge last month, and the scoreline tells a deceptive story.
The league leaders accumulated enough chances to have easily emulated the seven goals they put past Blackburn four weeks ago – and that was just inside the opening half an hour. Dimitar Berbatov put them on their way in the fifth minute from Wayne Rooney's cross and their dominance from that point was so unremitting it was strange they had to make do with only one more goal. For all their slick, pass-them-to-death football, it needed a slice of considerable fortune to soothe the crowd – Berbatov's 57th-minute effort was heading wide before taking a decisive deflection off Anton Ferdinand.
United are six points clear of Chelsea and five in front of Arsenal ahead of tomorrow's meeting between the two London clubs. Manchester City, in second place, are only two points behind but have played two games more. In other words, there was plenty for Ferguson to be happy about in his first game since overtaking Sir Matt Busby as the longest-serving manager in the club's history.
The only legitimate criticism was the way his side let Sunderland off a thrashing. Anderson hit the crossbar, Berbatov jabbed one shot against a post and another into the side-netting, Craig Gordon saved his side more times than he will care to remember and Wayne Rooney, despite being a constant menace, is still to score his first goal from open play for United since March. The build-up play was exhilarating best and Sunderland, with key players missing, were outclassed. Their manager, Steve Bruce, later admitted he had been "naive" playing a 4-4-2 formation.
Typically of Ferguson, he was not satisfied, commenting that his players "seemed to go into third gear" in parts of the second half. United's manager also thought that Berbatov "could have scored four or five". He spoke of the players slacking off because they had game at Birmingham City in the back of their minds. "It could have been any score, but in the second half we put the tools away," he said. "We were very economical, put it that way."
He could, though, reflect on some "absolutely fantastic" football, particularly in a first half when Sunderland performed a miracle just keeping the score down. Berbatov had one of those games when he seemed to be in a different sphere to the players marking him. Rooney, too, was excellent. His inability to hit the net will frustrate him, but there are encouraging signs of a player returning to his best. His passing and link-up play was exceptional and his attempted chip after 10 minutes shows he has not lost his eye for the spectacular. The goals will come. "He's getting there," Ferguson said. "The important thing is he's playing well and that's refreshing."
There was certainly plenty for Roy Hodgson to ponder on a spying mission ahead of Liverpool's FA Cup third-round tie here. Anderson was prominently involved, culminating in a wonderfully deceptive pass in the build-up to the second goal, though he did spoil it a little with a sulky reaction to being substituted. The Brazilian should take it as a compliment; Ferguson merely wanted to preserve him for the trip to St Andrew's.
Park Ji-sung made up for the absence of the injured Nani, showing he will be missed now he is going to the Asia Cup with South Korea. Ryan Giggs demonstrated his enduring brilliance, and Ferguson identified the central defensive partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic as one of the fundamental reasons why his side have moved clear at the top.
Yet Sunderland were poor opponents. Bruce's side never threatened the kind of performance that helped them win 3-0 at Chelsea last month. They did not manage a shot on target until the 79th minute and it was difficult to recall one moment when Darren Bent and Asamoah Gyan troubled the home defence. Bruce's managerial record against Ferguson now reads as 13 defeats and four draws in 17 games and it could have been even worse for the one-time United captain. The substitute, David Meyler, was fortunate not to be sent off for a dangerously high lunge on Rafael only four minutes after replacing Bent.
Bruce cited the fact he had half a dozen players missing (though so did United) but he also acknowledged he might have been playing into Ferguson's hands. "Maybe I was a bit naive. We were so open [with] two out-and-out wide players, [Steed] Malbranque and [Boudewijn] Zenden, and two out-and-out attacking players [Bent and Gyan]. Sometimes you just have to hold up your hands. We were too open and made it too easy for them. They were terrific, way above us."
There are certainly signs that everything is clicking into place for United. "We're coming into good form, playing some good stuff and getting some consistency," Ferguson said. "There are plenty of good signs."
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