ROBIN VAN Persie’s deflected strike inflicted a fifth defeat in seven on Sunderland, as the Black Cats were unable to give their survival hopes an unexpected boost.
The Dutchman’s first half effort proved sufficient to separate the sides at the Stadium of Light, with the league leaders solidifying their position at the top of the Premier League.
Manchester United cruised through the first half against a lacklustre Sunderland, albeit Sir Alex Ferguson’s men didn’t create a host of clear-cut opportunities.
Sunderland were much-improved in the second half, but were never able to force United stopper David De Gea into a meaningful save.
Martin O’Neill made four changes from the side which lumbered to a draw with 10-man Norwich City 13 days earlier - although three of the decisions were enforced due to injuries to Carlos Cuellar, David Vaughan and Steven Fletcher.
Stephane Sessegnon moved into a central role behind Danny Graham, with James McClean making his first start since January out wide.
Titus Bramble took Cuellar’s place at centre-half, while Bardsley was handed his first Premier League start of 2013 at right-back.
Bardsley’s inclusion saw Craig Gardner push into midfield, where he partnered Alfred N’Diaye, who was preferred to Seb Larsson.
There was also a place on the bench for 18-year-old academy product Mikael Mandron.
Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson rested Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs, ahead of Monday’s FA Cup quarter-final replay with Chelsea.
But there was just four changes to the United starting line-up, with Antonio Valencia, Shinji Kagawa, Rafael and Michael Carrick all included.
The visitors mustered the first clear-cut chance in the 12th minute when Alex Buttner bundled the ball past Bardsley into the area, but with just Simon Mignolet to beat, he could only scuff a shot against the keeper’s legs.
But with Sunderland looking increasingly comfortable, United took the lead in the 26th minute via a slice of fortune.
Robin van Persie spun away down the left flank and twisted and turned Bardsley as he descended towards the area, before hitting a low left-footed cross-come-shot which deflected off both the full-back and Bramble and nestled in the far corner.
Ashley Young tried his luck in the 33rd minute with a curling right-footed free-kick from 25 yards which Mignolet plucked out of the air cleanly with a full-length save to his left.
Mignolet again showed his prowess from a dead-ball threat in the 42nd minute, when he tipped over van Persie’s viscious inswinging free-kick from the right-hand side of the box.
Van Persie again tried his luck with the last kick of the half, although his audacious volley to Carrick’s chipped pass flew a foot over the top.
HALF-TIME Sunderland 0 Man United 1
Sunderland created their first chance of note in the 59th minute when Adam Johnson burst down the right and the ball bobbled to Bardsley, just inside the area, but the off-balance full-back could only looped a shot over the top.
Adam Johnson tried his luck from 25 yards in the 73rd minute, but his low left-footed effort dropped a couple of yards wide of the near post.
Buttner was denied by Mignolet again with 10 minutes to go after charging forward, checking inside N’Diaye before seeing his right-footed shot from the edge of the area pushed behind by the Belgian stopper.
Mignolet denied van Persie a second in stoppage time as United broke down the left through Young.
The England winger squared it to van Persie, but the Dutchman’s left-footed effort was blocked smartly by the Sunderland stopper.
FULL-TIME Sunderland 0 Man United 1
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet, Bardsley (Larsson 79), O’Shea, Bramble, Rose (Colback 85), Johnson (Wickham 76), Gardner, N’Diaye, McClean, Sessegnon, Graham. Subs not used: Westwood, Kilgallon, Mangane, Mandron. Booked: N’Diaye (26), O’Shea (50), Bardsley (76)
MAN UNITED: De Gea, Rafael (Evans 33), Smalling, Vidic, Buttner, Valencia, Carrick, Anderson (Cleverley 84), Young, Kagawa (Welbeck 79), van Persie. Subs not used: Lindegaard, Evra, Nani, Powell. Booked: van Persie (58)
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