Manchester United walks past Sunderland

Manchester United brushed aside an overmatched Sunderland in a routine 3-1 victory at Old Trafford on Saturday to ensure Alex Ferguson’s side will be top of the Barclays Premier League at Christmas.

Robin van Persie opened the scoring when he fired into the top left corner in the 16th minute after being set up by Ashley Young, and Tom Cleverley doubled the advantage by turning in a pass from Michael Carrick three minutes later.

Despite several Sunderland chances at the start of the second half, United stretched its lead through Wayne Rooney in the 59th when the striker converted a pass from Van Persie. The visitors scored a consolation goal in the 72nd through Fraizer Campbell.

The league title has been won by the team that was top of the standings at Christmas in each of the past three seasons.

With its 10th win from 11 league games, United maintained its six-point advantage over second-placed Manchester City, while Sunderland, which has not won a league match at Old Trafford since 1968, dropped to 16th with 16 points.

The game also featured the return of Nemanja Vidic to the United side. Plagued by injuries since August 2011, Vidic’s absence during last season’s run-in contributed to United’s defensive wobbles and the Serbian defender is viewed as the main way of plugging the leaks for a side that has kept only three clean sheets all season.

United started with a sense of purpose and Patrice Evra had already wasted one opportunity when Young wriggled away from Carlos Cuellar close to the dead-ball line, then cut a cross back that Van Persie finished expertly for his 15th of the season.

The goal also needed significant assistance from John O’Shea, who got himself into a muddle as he tried to clear Young’s cross, which allowed Van Persie to profit.

Given Wes Brown’s own-goal was the difference in last season’s corresponding fixture, Sunderland’s ex-United contingent have not had the happiest of returns to Old Trafford.

And within three minutes, the hosts had their second.

After scoring twice against Newcastle earlier in the campaign, Cleverley finally got his first in the Premier League at Old Trafford.

It was a gem, too, as the England midfielder exchanged passes with Carrick before drilling a fine effort past Simon Mignolet from 12 yards.

Rooney then wasted chances when he volleyed wide from Van Persie’s knock-down and steered a near-post header wide from Evra’s cross as the Red Devils threatened to run riot.

Halftime was approaching before Sunderland carved out its first meaningful opportunity, as Stephane Sessegnon struck Evra before the ball flew over.

The introduction of Conor Wickham at the half for the injured Steven Fletcher triggered a flurry of activity around the United goal as David de Gea denied Craig Gardner and Sessegnon.

Yet the best chances kept falling to the hosts.

Rooney’s shot rattled the bar after flicking off Titus Bramble, with Young blazing the rebound over.

Then, given the number of goals he has scored so far this season, came the somewhat surprising sight of Van Persie lobbing wide after Young had sent the Dutchman running clear of an over-stretched Sunderland back line.

There was little argument to be made for a Black Cats comeback and any possibility of it 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 for his fifth in four games.

With victory virtually assured, Ferguson felt sufficiently confident about easing Vidic back into the fray.

After only 13 appearances in a 16-month period that included a calf injury and two knee surgeries, the 31-year-old defender will hope to stay injury free in order to rediscover his old form.

And Vidic appears to have plenty of work in front of him judging by the uncharacteristic mistake that eventually led to United old-boy Campbell heading home from close range.