Sunderland 0 Manchester United 1

SUNDERLAND’S players were cheered to the rafters as they set off on a circuit of the Stadium of Light following their final home game of the season, but when the Premier League enters its last lap next weekend, it will be Manchester United with everything to play for.

Nani’s first-half winner condemned the Black Cats to only their third home defeat of the campaign and, more importantly, ensured the title race remains undecided ahead of the final round of matches.

Chelsea’s one-point advantage means they will finish as champions provided they win at home to Wigan Athletic next weekend. But while Manchester United will start as underdogs ahead of their home game with Stoke City, yesterday’s win on Wearside keeps them in the fight. Sunderland, on the other hand, will have precious little to play for when they travel to Wolves, even if yesterday’s defeat enabled Fulham to deprive them of their coveted place in the top ten.

In many ways, this felt like the perfect way to sign off the campaign, with a sold-out Stadium of Light roaring Steve Bruce’s side on as they traded blows with one of the Premier League’s powerhouses.

It also felt like a decent summation of the Black Cats’ campaign.

There was a surfeit of effort, glimpses of quality and plenty of positives for the future.

But there was also a sense of disappointment as Sunderland ultimately fell short.

For all that they sporadically threatened to cause an upset, the Wearsiders lacked that special bit of quality that might have seen them add Manchester United to a list of Stadium of Light scalps that includes the names of Arsenal and Liverpool.

The same has been true of the season as a whole, with some undoubted progress having to be balanced by an acceptance of how much there is still to do if the Black Cats are to become genuine challengers to the likes of Tottenham, Manchester City and Aston Villa, sides who are likely to remain ensconced in the top half of the Premier League for many years to come.

It is one thing to hassle, harry and make like difficult for Manchester United. It is quite another to beat them and confirm your arrival as a genuine topflight force.

That outcome rarely looked likely yesterday, as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side responded to Chelsea’s early-afternoon victory over Liverpool in a typically efficient manner.

They were boosted by Wayne Rooney’s return from a groin injury, and the England international ensured the reigning champions carried enough of an attacking threat to tilt the game their way.

Rooney, whose fitness will continue to be a subject of national debate in the run-up to the World Cup finals, appeared fresh and lively throughout, and Craig Gordon was forced into action as early as the fourth minute to prevent him converting John O’Shea’s cross.

The striker caused problems whenever he dropped deep to link midfield and attack, although Sunderland’s game plan to neuter him was undoubtedly affected by John Mensah’s departure midway through the first half.

Mensah has produced a number of eye-catching displays this season, but his chronic injury problems are bound to impinge upon talks over his future this summer. There is little point in Sunderland shelling out up to £5m to sign him permanently if he is only going to be available for a dozen or so games next season.

Mensah’s departure led to the arrival of Matt Kilgallon, and Sunderland almost fell behind as they attempted to reorganise their back four.

Patrice Evra released the evergreen Ryan Giggs on the edge of the area, and the veteran midfielder fashioned a scorching 18-yard drive that clipped the top of the crossbar.

Sunderland’s attacking to that stage had been fitful, even if both Mensah and Lorik Cana had gone relatively close with headers from set-pieces.

Steve Bruce’s response was to push Fraizer Campbell up front and switch formations from 4-5- 1 to 4-4-2, and the effect was pronounced , even if it was hard to avoid the conclusion that the formation might have worked better with Kenwyne Jones in the side from the start.

Suddenly, the hosts became much more purposeful, with Campbell combining with Bent to trouble the hesitant Jonny Evans, and Jordan Henderson exerting an increased influence from his preferred position on the right of midfield.

Henderson was involved in Sunderland’s best chance of the game, which came midway through the first half. He shuffled the ball inside to Steed Malbranque, and the Frenchman tried his luck with an excellent effort that was creeping into the top corner until Edwin van der Sar tipped the ball over the bar. Briefly, Manchester United appeared rattled, but following a well-worn script that has served them so well in the past, they calmed their nerves by sweeping up to the other end of the field to score.

Rooney fed Darren Fletcher, who in turn teed up Nani on the right of the box. The Portuguese winger had been largely anonymous to that stage, but his impact could hardly have been more significant as he drilled a precise low drive into the bottom left-hand corner of the net.

The goal was a setback to the hosts, and things got worse nine minutes before the break as David Meyler suffered a serious knee injury that led him to being stretchered from the field wearing an oxygen mask.

The injury resulted in four minutes of first-half stoppage time, a long enough spell for both sides to go close to scoring.

First, a lacklustre Dimitar Berbatov fired over after a slick reverse pass from Rooney had left him in acres of space in the box, then, at the other end, Evra was forced to head off the line after Henderson met Malbranque’s corner.

Berbatov’s miss was in keeping with many of his disappointing recent displays, but it was nothing compared to the opportunity he spurned eight minutes after the break.

Rooney crossed from the left, and while Berbatov evaded Sunderland’s covering defenders as he pulled to the back post, he somehow prodded wide from little more than three yards. If Ferguson is to jettison anyone this summer, the Bulgarian’s name will surely be at the top of his list.

He was eventually hauled off with 19 minutes left yesterday and his replacement, Michael Carrick, came closest to a second- half goal. Nani teed him up on the edge of the box after Gordon saved from Rooney, but a back-pedalling Michael Turner was able to clear his side-footed shot off the line.

Sunderland had plenty of possession late on, but their chances were limited to a Lee Cattermole drive that flashed past the post and an overhead kick from Campbell that sailed over the crossbar.

That effort was more in hope than expectation, and that will be Manchester United’s mood when they entertain Stoke next weekend. At least after yesterday, their hopes lives on.

0-1: Nani (28, drilled low strike into bottom left-hand corner after square ball from Fletcher)
Bookings: Vidic (41, dissent), Rooney (54, foul); Bardsley (55, simulation), Malbranque (81, foul), Richardson (85, foul)
Referee: Steve Bennett (Orpington) – Fussy at times, but wasn’t really swayed by Manchester United’s reputation 6
Attendance: 47,641
Entertainment: ✰✰✰✰

SUNDERLAND (4-5-1) :
7 Gordon: Made a great early save from Rooney and also denied Nani in the second half;
6 Bardsley: Kept Giggs quiet for large spells and delivered a number of crosses from the deep
6 Turner: Won plenty of headers against Berbatov and has grown into the leader of Sunderland’s line
5 Mensah: Lasted less than 20 minutes before succumbing to yet another injury niggle
6 Richardson: Held his position well and looks increasingly comfortable in the left-back berth;
7 CAMPBELL: Much more effective when pushed up front and made life difficult for Evans
6 Henderson: Embellished his reputation further with another industrious display
6 Meyler: Held his own in midfield before a serious knee injury saw him stretchered off
6 Cana: Just about back to the form that made him such a hit at the start of the season
6 Malbranque: Came closest to scoring with a long-range drive that van der Sar tipped over;
5 Bent: One of his quietest displays in a while in front of England number two Franco Baldini
Subs: Kilgallon (for Mensah 18): Slotted in effectively and could be an important player next season 6 Cattermole (for Meyler 37): Looked like he had never been away as he slotted in effectively at the heart of midfield 7 Jones (for Henderson 74) (not used): Carson (gk), Ferdinand, Da Silva, Zenden.

MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-2): Van der Sar 6; O’Shea 6, Evans 6, Vidic 6, Evra 7; Nani 6 (Hargreaves 90), Fletcher 5 (Ferdinand 87), Scholes 6, Giggs 5; ROONEY 8, Berbatov 4 (Carrick 71). Subs (not used): Foster (gk), Brown, Park, Macheda

WAYNE Rooney – Made every England supporter smile as he displayed no signs of rust on his return from a groin injury