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.”