MAN UNITED 3, SUNDERLAND 1.
Manchester United missed the chance to put clear blue water between themselves and neighbours City in terms of goal difference as they let Sunderland off the hook at Old Trafford.
The best first-half performance of the season at home was followed by a sloppy and slipshod second which caused them some nervous moments before the end.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson rarely gets it wrong with his substitutions, but the changes he made against Sunderland were factors in his side’s jittery last half hour.
Paul Scholes replaced Michael Carrick at the start of the second period, while Nemanja Vidic came on for Rio Ferdinand in the 68th minute.
Carrick had been impressive for the Reds in the centre of midfield, although it was logical for Viidic to return after three months out through injury at a time when United were, seemingly, in an impregnable position.
But the arrival of Ryan Giggs for Tom Cleverley in the 72nd minute was a change too far. Cleverley had been in supreme form alongside Carrick and his replacement by Giggs slowed down both the movement and momentum of the side.
The 39-year-old Giggs has been a magnificent servant for United and nobody would doubt his legendary status at Old Trafford. But his recent performances have been poor and he seems but a shadow of his former self.
Giggs and the 38-year-old Scholes in central midfield provided an invitation for Sunderland to wrest the initiative…… and that they did.
It was so different in the first period with Carrick and Cleverley in control and Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young flying down the wings.
Strikers Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie continued to build the kind of understanding which is now beginning to cause palpitations among opposition defenders.
United also looked more secure at the back where Phil Jones played well at right-back and Chris Smalling partnered Ferdinand to good effect.
Young and the ever adventurous left-back Patrice Evra had chances to put United ahead before van Persie broke the deadlock in the 16th minute. Young turned Carlos Cuellar inside out on the left by-line before crossing into the centre of the Sunderland box.
Former United defender and now Sunderland skipper John O’Shea’s poor clearance at the near post set up van Persie to sidefoot the ball into the roof of the net from six yards.
Van Persie was denied a second goal soon after when Sunderland goalkeepr Simon Mignolet tipped behind his header from a Jones cross, but the Reds doubled their lead in the 19th minute.
Superb interplay between Cleverley and Carrick opened the way for Cleverley to score when he bent his shot from the left side of the box into the far corner of the net.
Sunderland’s best chance of the first half came when Ferdinand dallied over a clearance on the left, leaving Cuellar ro rob him and force a fine pointblank save from United goalkeeper David De Gea.
The Reds were denied a third goal at the start of the second half when Rooney lashed the bar with a close-range shot from Valencia’s cross, but the England striker made it 3-0 after 59 minutes.
Valencia started the move when his back header prompted a van Persie run which took him from right to left side of the Sunderland box.
After exchanging passes with Young, van Persie cut in between Cuellar and Titus Bramble before crossing to the far post for Rooney to tap in from close range.
That was the high point for United with Sunderland coming back at them in the last half hour.
De Gea saved well from Craig Gardner and Stephane Sessegnon, but was beaten in the 72nd minute. United failed to clear a Sunderland corner .
The ball came to Sebastian Larsson on the right side of the penalty area.
While United’s players stood glued to the spot, Sessegnon retrieved the ball on the left by-line and crossed to the near post where unmarked substitute Fraizer Campbell headed home from almost on the goal-line.
With United nerves twitching, another Black Cats substuitute, Connor Wickham, forced a fine save from De Gea.
United manager, Ferguson, said: “People say we are weak in midfield, but we have some great players in that area.
“Tom Cleverley deserved to start today. He has always got a goal in him. He is an ace finisher and I expect more goals from him.
“I replaced him with Ryan Giggs to get more experience into midfield. It was good to see Nemanja Vidic back, but he needs to get more match fitness.”