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Robin van Persie’s 15th goal of the season ensured Manchester United will spend Christmas Day on top of the Barclays Premier League as they eased past Sunderland 3-1. Tom Cleverley’s first league goal at Old Trafford and Wayne Rooney’s fifth in four games were enough to keep United six points clear of Manchester City, with Frazier Campbell’s header against his old club scant consolation for Sunderland.
United started the match with purpose and Patrice Evra had wasted one opportunity when Ashley Young wriggled away from Carlos Cuellar close to the byline, then cut a cross back that Van Persie finished expertly after John O’Shea was unable to clear.
Within three minutes, the hosts had their second. It was a gem too as Cleverley exchanged passes with Michael Carrick before drilling an excellent effort past Simon Mignolet from 12 yards.
With United scenting blood, Rooney missed a good chance when he volleyed wide from Van Persie’s knockdown. The England striker then steered a near-post header wide from Evra’s cross as United threatened to run riot.
Half-time was approaching before Sunderland carved out their first meaningful opportunity, which Stephane Sessegnon struck Evra with before it flew over.
The interval introduction of Conor Wickham for the injured Steven Fletcher did trigger a flurry of activity around the United goal as David de Gea denied Craig Gardner and Sessegnon. Yet the clear chances kept falling to the hosts.
Rooney’s shot rattled the bar after flicking off Titus Bramble, with Young blazing the rebound over. Van Persie lobbed wide after Young had sent the Dutchman running clear of the Sunderland defence.
But the Dutchman was behind the third with an unselfish overlapping run that was followed by a deft piece of skill that took him between Cuellar and Bramble before he set up Rooney, who tapped home from close range.
With victory assured, Ferguson felt sufficiently confident about easing Nemanja Vidic back into the fray. After only 13 appearances in a 16-month period that included a calf injury and two lots of knee surgery, the 31-year-old came back on the field. But the Serb was unable to prevent Campbell from being found unmarked to score a late consolation header from close range.
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson: "A lot of our football was fantastic and some of our interchange play was terrific. I don’t know if we relaxed when we went 3-0 up or if Sunderland got a grip of the game, but towards the end they played very well and could have scored two or three goals.
“Some of our play was fantastic and we should’ve scored more. Tom Cleverley’s goal was a marvellous piece of interchange play, a first-time finish and a really superb goal which epitomised the way we were playing at that point. I’d no complaints for an hour and it was wonderful to watch.
“We don’t pick out Robin van Persie’s runs as well as we should - his movement is great and he kept them on the back foot. But Wayne [Rooney] could’ve scored three of four goals, he hit the bar and missed two or three chances in the first half. But he got one which is important as it keeps his run going.”
"People keep saying we are weak in midfield but these guys are very good players. Sometimes it gives me a little problem selecting the right two, although today was simple because [Michael] Carrick and Cleverley deserved to play after their performance [against Manchester City] last week. Tom has goals in him. As a younger player he always had a goal in him. He has got me three this season and I really do expect more from him because he is a nice finisher."
Sunderland manager Martin O’Neill: “Their first goal was a mistake on our part and we probably should have dealt with it better. At that point it could have got a little bit more frenetic.
"It was a really spirited performance in the second half. We improved and created some very good chances. It could have made for a really interesting finish, but we were unable to put them away.
“[Stephane] Sessegnon helped us get our goal back but we were unable to reduce the deficit any further, which was naturally disappointing with the chances we had. We can take a lot of heart from the second-half performance. There are a lot of big games coming up and they’re going to be important for us.”
"Steven [Fletcher] hurt his back in the warm-up before the game. He twisted it in some way and it was causing him a few problems. It got more painful in the last 10 minutes of the first half and he couldn't continue."
"Robin van Persie was a great purchase. It means Manchester United are capable of scoring goals because Wayne Rooney is a top quality player as well. Whilst their main players stay fit Manchester United are capable of winning the league."
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