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Titus Bramble's own goal allowed Manchester United to tighten their stranglehold on the Barclays Premier League title with a narrow victory at Sunderland.
The defender turned Robin van Persie's 27th-minute shot past goalkeeper Simon Mignolet after it had also clipped Phil Bardsley on its way to goal.
It proved enough to hand United a seventh successive league victory on a day when they were superior to their relegation-threatened hosts for long periods, but were unable to make their superiority tell.
Sunderland were barely in the game before the break, but buoyed by United's failure to build upon their lead, rallied after it without ever testing David de Gea as they extended their run without a league win to eight games in front of a crowd of 43,760.
United could have killed the game off long before the final whistle, but they did enough to extend their lead at the top of the table, for a few hours at least, to 18 points, the perfect preparation for Monday night's FA Cup quarter-final replay at Chelsea.
It was Nelson Mandela Day at the Stadium of Light with the club celebrating its recent collaboration with the former South Africa president's foundation at a time when the 94-year-old is battling a lung infection in hospital.
The omens for a Sunderland change of fortune were hardly promising - they had beaten United only once in 23 previous Barclays Premier League encounters - and they proved accurate before the break.
Sir Alex Ferguson did not include Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney in his 18 with Monday's trip to Stamford Bridge looming large, but his side eased their way through the first half without ever having to find top gear.
There were 12 minutes gone when full-back Alex Buttner embarked upon a determined run which took him past both Craig Gardner and Bardsley and deep into the penalty area, where Mignolet managed to block his close-range effort.
The Belgian had to be equally alert three minutes later as the Dutchman threatened to get on the end of a through-ball, and he then had to claw an Ashley Young cross out of his top corner as the visitors found their rhythm.
However, even he could do nothing about the chain of events which led to the opening goal with 27 minutes gone. Van Persie picked up possession on the left side of the penalty area, but found himself confronted by Bardsley. The striker patiently worked himself into a position to shoot, but when he unleashed his drive, it flew off Bardsley's boot on to Bramble's knee and inside the far post.
It was a blow for the Black Cats, who had earlier seen appeals for a penalty for Rafael da Silva's challenge on Gardner waved away. Van Persie forced a smart near-post save from Mignolet with a 38th-minute snapshot and then prompted him to tip over a fiercely-struck free-kick four minutes later with the points seemingly there for the taking.
Sunderland mustered only two attempts of note, both from Gardner and both off his weaker left foot, but first Nemanja Vidic and then Chris Smalling made blocks.
The home side returned after the break knowing they had to go for broke if they were to get anything out of the game, but United retained possession at will with the movement of Shinji Kagawa and Van Persie, and Michael Carrick's composure simply too much for their hosts, who were seeing too little of the ball to bring wide men Adam Johnson and James McClean into play.
However, the former Manchester City winger finally got the bit between his teeth with 59 minutes gone when he burst into the penalty area. His cross was blocked, but Bardsley latched on to the loose ball, only to fire harmlessly over the top.
The home side threatened once again seconds later when striker Danny Graham crossed from the right towards Stephane Sessegnon, who was only just beaten to the ball by substitute Jonny Evans. The mood inside the Stadium of Light lifted instantly as Martin O'Neill's men belatedly forced United on to the back foot.
They mounted a sustained spell of pressure for the first time in the game and it took another good clearing header, this time by Smalling, to prevent Graham from opening his Sunderland account 19 minutes from time.
Johnson smashed a left-foot effort from distance just wide two minutes later, but Buttner forced a solid save from Mignolet and Vidic headed wide from a corner as United saw time out with few further scares.
Van Persie should have made sure deep into injury-time after Ashley Young had evaded Bramble's lunge and squared, but Mignolet made a remarkable stop to deny him.
Sunderland manager Martin O’Neill: “Confidence is a major thing in the game and we are striving for it, but the players can take a great deal of confidence from that second-half performance.
"We have to go and put it right, and we intend to do so. There is a determination in that dressing room to get the points. Nothing is too easy in this game, but we are up for the challenge."
"We were tentative in the first half, a little bit nervous, a bit wary of the quality of the opposition. I thought we maybe gave them a little bit too much room. In the second half we started the game and we put absolutely everything into the match, everything we had. It certainly wasn't through a lack of effort, but Manchester United are a very fine side. The second half, I was very pleased with the team indeed.
"It's difficult to keep that intensity up for 90 minutes against anyone, never mind the best side in the league. If we had been a little bit less tentative to begin with, that might have borne some fruit. That said, I was delighted with the effort of the team and it bodes well."
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson: "It was a battling performance by the players. We picked up two or three injuries along the way and it was courage that got us through in the second half. It means we will go into the Man City game with at least a 15-point lead.
"The first half we did well, second half we give credit to Sunderland because they gave it a real go. The players have galvanised themselves - the team spirit, the concentration, the focus in every game. That's 25 wins in 30 league games, which is a record. That's all down to the efforts of the players."
"Earlier in the season we were losing goals but we have got defenders back - Chris Smalling, Phil Jones coming back helps, Jonny Evans, Rio [Ferdinand] and Vida [Nemanja Vidic]. Your selection, two from those five, makes it much easier for us."
|19 May 2013||v Spurs (A)|
|06 May 2013||v Stoke (H)|
|12 May 2013||v Southampton (H)|
|20 Apr 2013||v Everton (H)|
|14 Apr 2013||v Newcastle (A)|
|29 Apr 2013||v Aston Villa (A)|