Robin van Persie’s 15th goal of the season ensured Manchester United will spend Christmas Day on top of the Premier League.
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 neighbours City, with Frazier Campbell’s header against his old club scant consolation for the Wearsiders, who remain deep in relegation trouble.
There was a sense of purpose about United’s start which has rarely been matched this season. Patrice Evra had already wasted one excellent opportunity when Ashley Young wriggled away from Carlos Cuellar close to the dead-ball line, then cut a cross back which Van Persie finished expertly.
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, Wayne Rooney wasted a glorious chance when he volleyed wide from Van Persie’s knock-down.
The England striker then steered a near-post header wide from Evra’s cross as the Red Devils 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.
There was little argument to be made for a Black Cats comeback and any pretence was ended just before the hour when an unselfish overlapping run by Van Persie 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, Alex Ferguson felt sufficiently confident about easing Nemanja Vidic back into the fray, the player having made only 13 appearances in a 16-month period that included a calf injury and two lots of knee surgery. Vidic has plenty of work in front of him too judging by the uncharacteristic mistake that eventually led to United old-boy Campbell heading home from close range.