SUNDERLAND remain just a point above the Premier League drop zone after a late charge proved insufficient to prevent a 3-1 defeat at leaders Manchester United.
Goals from Robin van Persie and Tom Cleverley inside four first half minutes left Sunderland facing an uphill battle and it could easily have been more for the hosts at the interval with Wayne Rooney spurning a brace of clear-cut chances.
But when Rooney made amends with a third just before the hour mark, it was effectively game-over and left the Black Cats facing an ominous final 30 minutes.
Substitute Fraizer Campbell’s first goal since February reduced the deficit though and Sunderland continued to push for a way back into the game, although it was ultimately to no avail.
Sunderland were dealt a blow prior to kick-off when Danny Rose failed to recover from the ankle knock he sustained in Tuesday’s victory over Reading.
Titus Bramble took Rose’s spot in the starting line-up – forcing Martin O’Neill into a reshuffle with Jack Colback moving to left-back, Carlos Cuellar to right-back and Craig Gardner partnering Seb Larsson in the middle of the park.
But there was better news for Sunderland regarding Adam Johnson, with the former Manchester City winger recovering from the dead leg he suffered against the Royals.
Man United made two changes from the side which triumphed in the Manchester derby, with Phil Jones replacing Rafael at right-back and Chris Smalling introduced at centre-half for injured ex-Sunderland loanee Jonny Evans.
But fit-again United skipper Nemanja Vidic was only included on the bench.
Ashley Young had United’s first meaningful opportunity in the sixth minute when he blasted a deflected shot over the top after Sunderland only half-cleared Wayne Rooney’s corner.
Patrice Evra almost punished Steven Fletcher’s slack clearance from another corner five minutes later when the Scotland international’s volley clear only reached the United skipper 12 yards out.
Evra managed to get the ball under control, but then unleashed a left-footed shot which was always rising and comfortably cleared the crossbar.
But after a solid start from the Black Cats, they fell behind in the 15th minute after a dreadful error from United old boy John O’Shea.
Young was able to squeeze a cross in between Cuellar and Seb Larsson, which O’Shea could only clear a matter of yards to van Persie, 10 yards out.
The Dutchman kept his cool and placed a shot into the corner beyond a static Simon Mignolet.
Van Persie almost added a second three minutes later when Jones curled in a cross from the right which drifted over O’Shea and was met by the head of the former Arsenal man who directed his effort towards the near post, only for Mignolet to palm it behind.
But Sunderland’s reprieve was temporary.
United remained encamped in Sunderland’s area from the resulting corner before Cleverley received the ball down the left.
Cleverley played a one-two with Michael Carrick, lost the attentions of the ball-watching Cuellar and Johnson and swept a right-footed shot beyond Mignolet into the far corner.
Rooney then spurned two golden chances in quick succession to add to United’s advantage.
First, Rooney sliced a volley wide from six yards out after van Persie had headed the ball into his path.
And then Rooney headed wide from a similar position after being picked out by Evra’s left wing cross.
But Sunderland should have handed themselves a lifeline in the 24th minute when James McClean pounced on Rio Ferdinand’s slip on the edge of the United area.
McClean dribbled down the left-hand touchline, but with Fletcher and Craig Gardner waiting, opted to try his luck from an impossible angle and blasted a shot straight at David De Gea.
Sunderland went close again in the 38th minute when United failed to clear Larsson’s corner from the left and the ball came back out to the Swede.
Larsson chipped a ball to the far post which made its way to Stephane Sessegnon, whose drive into the goalmouth was deflected over the top by Evra.
McClean tried his luck from 30 yards in the final minute of the half, but his low effort was straight at De Gea.
HALF-TIME Man United 2 Sunderland 0
Sunderland were forced into a half-time change with Connor Wickham replacing the injured Fletcher, who pulled up with what seemed a hip problem in the closing stages of the first half.
United also made a change with Paul Scholes replacing Carrick.
United continued to look lethal going forward though and only the woodwork denied them a third with less than 90 seconds of the second half gone.
Antonio Valencia’s cross from the right skidded off Titus Bramble via Wayne Rooney onto the Sunderland bar before Young blasted the rebound over the top.
But moments later, Sunderland almost found a breakthrough themselves when Wickham held it up well down the right-hand side of the box and laid it back to Gardner, in space on the edge of the area.
Gardner didn’t make a clean contact with his left-footed shot, but De Gea couldn’t hold it and the ball spilled to Sessegnon on the left-hand touchline, only for the United stopper to react swiftly to block again.
At the other end, van Persie went close again, but lifted his chip wide of the mark after beating the offside trap and lifting the ball over Mignolet.
McClean almost inadvertently got Sunderland on the score-sheet in the 56th minute when his left wing cross deflected off Scholes and dropped just the wrong side of the post.
Wickham produced a decent effort two minutes later when United backed off him 20 yards out and the 19-year-old unleashed a well-struck right-footed effort which just cleared the bar.
But any hopes Sunderland harboured of getting a foothold back in the game were effectively ended moments later as United added a third.
Van Persie overlapped down the outside of Young on the left-hand side of Sunderland’s area before ghosting between Cuellar and Bramble.
He pushed a low ball across the face where Rooney got ahead of the ball-watching O’Shea and Colback to tap into an empty net.
Sessegnon tried his luck in the 71st minute with a right-footed shot from 25 yards which De Gea comfortably pushed around the post.
But United were unable to clear their lines from the resulting corner and after Larsson’s cross skidded across the face, Sessegnon collected the ball on the left-hand touchline and lifted it to the far post where substitute Campbell headed home from point-blank range.
Sunderland worried United in their quest for another breakthrough and Wickham drew a decent save from De Gea with eight minutes to go when Larsson played him down the right and he unleashed a powerful effort that was blocked by the keeper’s legs.
James McFadden was then handed his Sunderland debut with five minutes to go, the Scotland international replacing Colback.
FULL-TIME Man United 3 Sunderland 1
MAN UNITED: De Gea, Jones, Smalling, Ferdinand (Vidic 68), Evra, Valencia, Carrick (Scholes 46), Cleverley (Giggs 73), Young, Rooney, van Persie. Subs not used: Lindegaard, Hernandez, Welbeck, Fletcher.
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet, Cuellar, Bramble, O’Shea, Colback (McFadden 85), Johnson (Campbell 68), Gardner, Larsson, McClean, Sessegnon, Fletcher (Wickham 46). Subs not used: Kilgallon, Vaughan, Westwood, Saha.