United beats Sunderland 1-0, maintains title surge

Manchester United relied on a first-half own goal by Titus

Bramble to beat Sunderland 1-0 on Saturday, securing a seventh

straight Premier League win to inch the runaway leaders closer to a

20th English title.

Hours after the loss, Sunderland announced the departure of

manager Martin O’Neill, with the club just a point clear of

relegation trouble with seven matches left.

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 remaining.

”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.”

It proved to be the final game in charge for O’Neill, who

departs following a 15-month tenure and with Sunderland embroiled

in a relegation fight with tough fixtures against Chelsea,

Newcastle and Everton coming up. With top scorer Steven Fletcher

out for the season because of injury, the team is a serious

candidate for the drop.

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.”

United, meanwhile, can virtually 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.”