Robin van Persie’s shot in the 27th minute was heading wide but Bramble stuck out a leg and deflected the ball into the corner of his own net, rewarding United for its early dominance at the Stadium of Light.
The visitors, who came into the match holding a 15-point cushion at the top, sat back in the second half but held on relatively comfortably. Only the biggest meltdown in Premier League history would stop them reclaiming the title off second-place Manchester City.
United has become the first top-division team in the history of English football to win 25 of its first 30 league games, and it has a real chance of breaking Chelsea’s record from the 2004-05 season of 95 points from a single campaign. The team has 77 points with eight games left.
”We are getting closer,” United midfielder Michael Carrick said. ”It’s one game less but we still have to go again . We will keep plugging away.”
United has bad recent memories of playing Sunderland away – two seasons ago, a broken sewage pipe left a foul stench in its dressing room while last season, Alex Ferguson’s team won 1-0 on the final weekend but had the title ripped from them by City in extraordinary, last-gasp circumstances.
United will leave the northeast more content this time around, having dominated a lethargic Sunderland side from the start despite Ferguson resting the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney and Patrice Evra with Monday’s FA Cup quarterfinal replay against Chelsea in mind. The only negative was the 32nd-minute withdrawal of Brazilian right back Rafael da Silva because of injury.
Van Persie’s streak without a United goal stretches to eight matches – he scored three times in two games for the Netherlands in the international break – but he was integral in the only goal here, firing in a shot that deflected first off Phil Bardsley and then more decisively off the outstretched right thigh of Bramble and into the corner.
That capped a bright start to the match by Van Persie, who almost doubled the advantage late in the first half when he exchanged passes with the excellent Carrick only to volley just over the bar.
With United relying on the counter-attack on the second half, Sunderland perked up and saw more of the ball but rarely threatened David de Gea’s goal. It was United that came closest to grabbing the game’s second goal, with Alex Buttner denied by goalkeeper Simon Mignolet and Van Persie also denied by the Belgium international after being fed a great chance on a counterattack.
”This team is just full of winners,” said Van Persie, who is likely to win the English title for the first time in his first season with United. ”Everyone knows what he has to do.”
The loss left Sunderland just above the relegation zone with seven games remaining, with tough fixtures against Chelsea, Newcastle and Everton coming up. With top scorer Steven Fletcher out for the season because of injury, the team could soon find itself in the bottom three.
United, meanwhile, can almost seal the title with a home win over City in its next match on April 8.
”It was an important win,” Ferguson said, ”as it means we go into the Manchester City game with at least a 15-point lead.”