Manchester United retained their six-point lead at the top of the Premier League courtesy of a 3-1 win over Sunderland at Old Trafford.
Sir Alex Ferguson's side ensured they will top the table at Christmas thanks to a dominant first-half performance that saw both Robin van Persie and Tom Cleverley score excellent goals.
Wayne Rooney added a third after the break following another flowing move in what was a stylish performance from the home side, though United were typically vulnerable in the second half and conceded when Fraizer Campbell headed in against his former side after 72 minutes.
Still, the sight of Nemanja Vidic coming off the bench after 68 minutes to make his first appearance since September should herald a cure to United's residual defensive ills heading towards the New Year.
Following their dramatic derby victory last weekend, United made only two changes, both in defence, as Chris Smalling and Phil Jones started in place of Rafael and Jonny Evans. Sunderland - 3-0 victors over Reading in midweek - replaced the injured Danny Rose with Titus Bramble for a game few expected them to take anything from.
As expected, United stamped their authority immediately. With Michael Carrick and Cleverley nicely in tune, Ferguson's side dominated possession, playing the ball around with real panache, and Young and Patrice Evra both went close following corners before United opened up a one-goal lead after just 16 minutes.
It was Van Persie who scored the 1,500th United goal at Old Trafford during Ferguson's reign, sweeping the ball home with a fine finish after 16 minutes, but Young deserved much of the credit for a fine assist that saw him execute a stepover when driving forward, lose two men in the box with a Cruyff turn and then fire in a cross that deflected to the Dutchman.
Only three minutes later, and after Van Persie had forced Simon Mignolet into a sprawling save with a firm downwards header, it was 2-0. This time it was United's two midfielders who combined to good effect, Carrick releasing Cleverley with a lovely pass to complete a clever one-two before the latter curled an expert finish into the far side of the net.
United were suddenly rampant as they enjoyed one of their best spells of the season. Following another stylish move, Rooney volleyed narrowly wide of the post as he failed to convert from Van Persie's knockdown, and later headed wide following a nice piece of work from Evra on the left.
However, Ferguson's side have been defensively susceptible throughout this season and their fragility was on show again after 25 minutes when Rio Ferdinand produced a poor header, allowing James McClean to bear down on goal. Instead of crossing for Stephane Sessegnon or Steven Fletcher, though, the Irish winger tried to beat De Gea from a tight angle and saw his effort repelled by the keeper. Evra also had to head away from a fierce Sessegnon shot before the break but United were unmistakably on top.
Sunderland then lost top scorer Fletcher to an injury that meant he was unable to return for the second half, while United were also pressed into a change as Paul Scholes came on for the influential Carrick. The two changes did nothing to disrupt the tempo of an entertaining game though as Rooney saw a shot deflect up off Bramble and onto the bar inside a minute of the restart, with Young lifting the follow-up over the bar.
Despite the loss of Fletcher, Sunderland were a more viable attacking force in the second half, with De Gea making a good double stop to deny Craig Gardner from range and then Sessegnon on the follow-up before seeing a fizzing effort from Wickham fly narrowly over the bar from 20 yards out.
But United's superiority was not to be seriously challenged and after Van Persie passed up the chance for a second when lifting a lobbed effort over Mignolet and wide, it was left to Rooney to make it 3-0 with 59 minutes gone.
Young was involved again as he found Van Persie with a smart short pass and the Dutchman took a fine touch to jink inside Bramble. A low cross to the back post found Rooney, though the culpable Colback may have had the last touch as the ball buried in the back of the net.
Just when Sunderland were in danger of being overwhelmed, though, they fought back. Sessegnon had a fierce effort from outside the box tipped round the post by De Gea and after play continued from the resulting corner, he eventually dinked a cross to the far post where substitute Campbell arrived to head home from close range.
United's defence was being tested again and Wickham saw a firm drive repelled rather unconvincingly by De Gea. However, the home side finished the game on top with Van Persie and Valencia both threatening as United moved six points clear of Manchester City once more.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Ashley Young (Manchester United): Involved in two of the three goals, including a brilliant assist for Van Persie's opener, the oft-maligned winger was full of purpose all afternoon and gave Sunderland a torrid time down the left.
MAN UTD: De Gea 6, Jones 7, Ferdinand 5, Smalling 6, Evra 7, Carrick 7, Cleverley 7, Valencia 5, Rooney 8, Young 8, Van Persie 8. Subs: Scholes 6, Vidic 6, Giggs 6.
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet 6, Cuellar 5, Bramble 6, O'Shea 5, Colback 5, Gardner 6, Larsson 6, Johnson 5, Sessegnon 7, McClean 7, Fletcher 6. Subs: Wickham 8, Campbell 7, McFadden N/A.
- Sports & Recreation
- Manchester United