An own goal from Titus Bramble was enough for Manchester United to beat Sunderland 1-0 at the Stadium of Light and take another step towards regaining the Premier League title.
The Sunderland defender was unlucky to account for the decisive moment after some good work from Robin Van Persie but the goal was no more than the visitors deserved after being a class apart in the first period.
Martin O'Neill's men improved in the second half but never really threatened an equaliser and, while United go 18 points clear of neighbours Manchester City at the top of the table, Sunderland fall deeper into relegation trouble.
The visitors started the better of the two sides but it was the Sunderland who had the first chance when a sloppy clearance from United keeper David De Gea cleared the ball straight to Danny Graham but the big striker was denied by an offside flag.
The Black Cats were giving the champions-elect too much time and space and it was only the wastefulness of Ashley Young, whose final ball once again was awful, that prevented United carving out some clear chances.
Sunderland's lethargic display up to that point was punished with the opening goal on 27 minutes when Phil Bardsley was left one-on-one with Van Persie and, despite holding him up gamely, the Dutchman managed to squeeze the ball across the face of the goal where the unfortunate Bramble could do nothing but deflect it past Simon Mignolet into the net.
Bramble made slight amends just minutes later when his lunge denied Anderson from finishing off a fine team move orchestrated by Shinji Kagawa.
Sunderland started the second half displaying all signs of a rollocking from manager Martin O'Neill at half-time as they immediately began pressing United and Alfred N'Diaye made a surging run from midfield - the type of attacking intent lacking from his side's first-half performance - but his cross-shot flew over the top of De Gea's crossbar.
The young Spaniard did well a couple of minutes later punching away well from a looping cross but he received a blow to the head from Nemanja Vidic in the process of doing so, requiring extensive treatment before being able to carry-on.
United gradually began to take the sting out of Sunderland with a long period of possession and looked dangerous at times on the break with the home fans relieved when defender Danny Rose nicked the ball off the toe of Antonio Valencia with the winger poised to double their lead.
Sir Alex Ferguson's men went close again a few minutes later when Alexander Buttner, in his most impressive outing since he joined the Old Trafford club last summer, took aim from outside the box but Mignolet managed to tip the ball wide.
The home side never gave up but despite all their huff and puff towards the end they never looked like getting the equaliser and face a real battle for Premier League survival.