Dimitar Berbatov proved to Sir Alex Ferguson that he must be in contention for all future matches as the Bulgarian forward scored two goals – one albeit a massive deflection – to earn all three points for United.
All three points were definitely a must, primarily because of the four matches that United has in a 10-day span, and the Reds did very well to see off a resurgent Sunderland team and maintain their position at the summit of the league standings.
Due to illnesses to both Nani and Darren Fletcher, Sir Alex Ferguson to go with the fan-preferred 4-4-2, and went with Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick and Anderson and Ji-Sung Park, who will be making his last appearance for United due to his involvement in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup.
The change in formation also saw the United manager go with the partnership of Wayne Rooney and Berbatov in the United attack.
Steve Bruce also had a make-shift line-up for Sunderland with Ahmed Al Muhammadi moving to right-back, because his first choice right-back, Nedum Onuoha, had to partner Anton Ferdinand in the center of their defense.
The first couple of minutes of the match was played at a rampant pace in the middle of the field, and it was wonderful run by Ryan Giggs which found the foot of Rooney, and he sent a wonderful weighted chip to the far stick and Berbatov smashed it home past Craig Gordon.
Following a wonderful bit of passing, Old Trafford supporters were almost treated to a goal that Eric Cantona scored 14 years prior when Rooney hit a curling chip that had Gordon scrambling, but his effort bent just a bit too early and went a whisker wide of the far post.
Then moments later, Berbatov had a driving run into the Sunderland box, and he saw the near post open, and the Bulgarian smacked the ball off of the corresponding post.
Sunderland were allowing United to boss the possession and to get forward, but it was the frame of the goal that saved the visitors from going down another goal as Anderson’s left-footed rocket shook the cross bar.
United were full of energy and the ball went out to Berbatov, who was unfairly challenged by Phil Bardsley, but he got up and played the ball into Park, who laid it off to Rooney, and the forward’s shot was well saved by Gordon.
Again, United was within inches of increasing their lead, but Berbatov’s near post blast went the wrong side of the post into the side netting.
Rooney played the ball into the Sunderland area, and it bobbled up to Giggs, who hit it first time, but the Sunderland blushes were spared by the left foot of their goalkeeper and the ball went out for a corner kick.
In the 23rd minute, United attacked down the right-hand side, and a passing combination between Park, Rooney and Rafael saw the latter of the three get the ball in the box, and he was pulled down by Bardsley, who was booked for the early challenge on Berbatov, and it was interesting no-call by Phil Dowd.
To Sunderland’s relief, the game began to drop off a little bit, as United seemed content to keep the ball and knock it around in the middle of park.
The first time that Edwin van der Sar touched the ball from a Sunderland player was when the ball hit the self-confessed United fan Asamoah Gyan’s head, which trickled to the soon-to-be retiring goalkeeper.
Anderson did well to outwit the bright youngster Jordan Henderson with series of moves, and then he spotted Giggs’ brilliant run with a lofted, but, unfortunately, he could not bring the ball down before being harassed by a group of Sunderland defenders.
Anderson, who just committed his long-term future to the club, went within inches again of doubling United’s lead, but he could not steer it on target.
Following their second successive corner, Rooney received the ball, and instead of hitting it first time on his weaker foot, he cut inside and fired in a low drive, which Gordon gathered up.
Sunderland had a very good spell of possession, which showed that they are able to attack with the best of teams, but, thankfully, some very good interventions by Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic helped United clear the danger.
Before the half-time whistle could come, Rooney had the chance to make a very direct, lung-bursting run from inside of the United half, but some good back-track defending by Bardsley helped Gordon come out and kill off the chance.
The second-half started, and it was the visitors who had the first chance – and it was their first chance of the match as well.
Steed Malbranque got the ball in the middle of the United half, and with the defenders dropping off, he had a shot, which took a deflection that Gyan got on the end of, but blazed over from close range.
United started the half very cold and were sloppy with their passing, which allowed Sunderland to get more on the ball and start to grow in confidence.
Finally, United got their first chance at goal seven minutes into half when Giggs’ corner was met firmly by Vidic, but it was directly at the Sunderland goalkeeper.
Some very good passing by United saw the ball being played out to Rooney, and the pass-then-shoot forward spot a return pass to Anderson but it was well blocked by Ferdinand.
With the Mackems needing a goal, the game was very open and there was space everywhere for United, and it was exactly what the Reds needed
Anderson made a clever no-look pass to Berbatov, and with the defenders dropping off the Bulgarian curled an outside-of-the-foot effort that was goal bound, but it took a telling-touch off Ferdinand – who scored another decisive own goal two seasons ago in this same fixture.
The goal seemed to energize United as they started creating more chances, but more timely blocks and good goalkeeping by Gordon denied the home team.
With a congested fixture list to come, Ferguson decided on two changes with Darron Gibson and Federico Macheda coming on for Anderson and Giggs, respectively.
With in moments, both substitutions could have made an immediate impact.
First it was Gibson who was thrown straight into the action after Berbatov back-heeled the ball into his path, but his bending shot went straight at Gordon.
Macheda’s turn was when a cross came into the six-yard box, but the young forward overran it and the Sunderland goalkeeper finally saved the low-cross after two bites of the cherry.
Darren Bent finally had his first sight at goal, but it was never going to trouble anyone as it went well over the bar, and it proved to be his last as well.
Bruce brought on the young David Meyler came on for Bent to add more men in the Sunderland midfield to help contain the floodgates.
Similar to his goal against Blackburn last year, Berbatov collected Gibson’s long range shot, and acrobatically stroked a dipping volley towards the Black Cats goal, but again Gordon was there to block.
Within moments of coming on the pitch, Meyler was involved with two very dangerous instances with both Park and Rafael, and to the dismay of virtually everyone except the Sunderland supporters, Dowd only brandished a yellow card.
The intent and message from Sir Alex for the last 15 minutes was clear – do not over exert yourself and maintain the shape of the formation.
11 minutes from time, and like the first meeting, Boudewijn Zenden was given way too much space and the former Liverpool player had the first shot on target, but van der Sar did well to claim the ball with some relative ease.
Both managers made changes with Jordan Cook coming on for Malbranque, and Javier Hernandez came on for the scorer and creator of both goals, Berbatov.
In the last five minutes of the match, the match fell into another lull, but Al Muhammadi had a real chance to test the United resolve but he hit the ball into the stands rather than the net.
Two minutes from time, Zenden was replaced by another debutant, Marcos Angeleri.
Rooney was seen limping around for the last part of stoppage time, which will give Ferguson some concern for the match with Birmingham City to come.
Although they only scored two goals, Manchester United turned in one of their best attacking performances of the season with the convincing defeat of Sunderland to maintain top-spot in the Barclays Premier League standings.
After making his hardest decision in recent times, Sir Alex Ferguson will more than likely not leave Dimitar Berbatov out of his starting line-up again after the Bulgarian did well to increase his goal tally by at least one.
E. van der Sar – 6; Rafael – 7, R. Ferdinand – 7, N. Vidic – 7, P. Evra – 7; M. Carrick – 6, Anderson – 8 (D. Gibson – 6), R. Giggs – 7 (F. Macheda – 6), J. S. Park – 7; W. Rooney – 7, D. Berbatov – 8 (J. Hernandez – X)
D. Berbatov (5′), (58′)
Shots (On Target): 16 (8)
Fouls Conceded (Suffered): 11 (10)