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Mar 30, 2013

Van Persie's deflected shot lifts United

Titus Bramble's unfortunate own goal allowed Manchester United to tighten their stranglehold on the Premier League title with a narrow 1-0 victory at Sunderland on Saturday.

The luckless defender unwittingly turned Robin van Persie's 27th-minute shot past keeper Simon Mignolet after it had also clipped Phil Bardsley on its way to goal.

Van Persie was not too concerned with who received credit for the goal.

"We got the three points, we knew it would be tough because Sunderland work hard and we had to dig in, but we deserved it," he told Sky Sports 2. "It didn't matter who scored today, it was all about the three points. This team is full of winners, everyone knows what they have to do and it was never in doubt for me. I was confident we would win."

It proved enough to hand United a seventh successive league victory on a day when it was far superior to its relegation-threatened hosts for long periods but was unable to make the superiority show on the scoreline.

The Black Cats were barely in the game before the break, but buoyed by United's failure to build upon its lead, rallied after the half without ever testing keeper David de Gea as they extended their run without a league win to eight games in front of a crowd of 43,760.

The loss was deemed the final straw for manager Martin O'Neill, and Sunderland announced late Saturday that the club and coach had parted ways.

United probably should have killed the game off long before the final whistle, but did enough to extend its lead at the top of the table, for a few hours at least, to 18 points, in the perfect preparation for Monday night's FA Cup quarterfinal replay at Chelsea.

United missed out on the title on the last day of the season at Sunderland last May and manager Sir Alex Ferguson has been pleased with their response.

"The players have been galvanised. Their spirit, concentration and focus have been excellent," he said."We have 25 wins from 30 games, which I think is a record, and that's all down to the efforts of the players. We just have to win games and that is the important thing to focus on."

It was Nelson Mandela Day at the Stadium of Light with the club celebrating its recent collaboration with the former South Africa president's foundation at a time when the 94-year-old is battling a lung infection in hospital.

The omens for a Sunderland change of fortune were hardly promising -- Sunderland had beaten United only once in 23 previous Premier League encounters -- and they proved depressingly accurate before the break.

Ferguson did not even include Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney in his 18 with Monday's trip to Stamford Bridge looming large, but his side eased its way through the first half without ever having to find top gear.

There were 12 minutes gone when full back Alex Buttner embarked upon a determined run that took him past both Craig Gardner and Bardsley and deep into the penalty area, where Mignolet managed to block his close-range effort.

The Belgian had to be equally alert three minutes later as the Dutchman threatened to get on the end of a through ball, and he then had to claw an Ashley Young cross out of his top corner as the visitors found their rhythm.

However, even he could do nothing about the chain of events that led to the opening goal with 27 minutes gone.

Van Persie picked up possession on the left side of the penalty area but found himself confronted by Bardsley.

The striker patiently worked himself into a position to shoot, but when he unleashed his drive, it flew off Bardsley's boot on to Bramble's knee and inside the far post.

It was a devastating blow for the Black Cats, who had earlier seen appeals for a penalty for Rafael da Silva's challenge on Gardner waved away, and they visibly wilted as they sensed the game slipping away from them.

Van Persie forced a smart near-post save from Mignolet with a 38th-minute snapshot and then prompted him to tip over a fiercely struck free kick four minutes later with the points seemingly there for the taking.

Sunderland mustered only two attempts of note, both from Gardner and both off his weaker left foot, but first Nemanja Vidic and then Chris Smalling made blocks.

The home side returned knowing they had to go for broke if it was to get anything out of the game, but United retained possession at will with the movement of Shinji Kagawa and van Persie, and Michael Carrick's composure simply too much for their hosts, who were seeing too little of the ball to bring wide men Adam Johnson and James McClean into play.

However, the former Manchester City winger finally got the bit between his teeth with 59 minutes gone when he burst into the penalty area.

His cross was blocked, but Bardsley latched on to the loose ball, only to fire harmlessly over the top.

The home side threatened once again seconds later when striker Danny Graham crossed from the right towards Stephane Sessegnon, who was only just beaten to the ball by substitute Jonny Evans.

The mood inside the Stadium of Light lifted instantly as O'Neill's men belatedly forced United on to the back foot.

They mounted a sustained spell of pressure for the first time in the game and it took another good clearing header, this time by Smalling, to prevent Graham from opening his Sunderland account 19 minutes from time.

Johnson smashed a left-foot effort from distance just wide two minutes later, but Buttner forced a solid save from Mignolet and Vidic headed wide from a corner as United saw time out with few further scares.

Van Persie should have made sure deep into injury time after Young had evaded Bramble's lunge and squared, but Mignolet made a remarkable stop to deny him.

Sunderland remains in big trouble toward the foot of the table and its fans are worried as the fixture list is showing no signs of providing any favors. Although he won't be around to see it, O'Neill said after the game he thought he had seen enough to suggest his side will be okay.

"I thougt we were tentative and nervous and the start but then we stormed into the game in the second half," he said. "I was very pleased with the team. I was delighted with the effort of the team and it bodes well. There is some determination in that dressing room."

Information from Press Association was used in this report.

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