Dimitar double lifts United
A Dimitar Berbatov double extended Manchester United's unbeaten run to 17 games and consolidated their position at the Barclays Premier League summit as Sunderland were brushed aside 2-0 at Old Trafford.
Victory provided United with a healthy advantage over Arsenal and Chelsea, who meet at the Emirates Stadium on Monday, and nearest challengers Manchester City, who have played two games more.
And while Wayne Rooney's wait for a goal in open play goes on, Berbatov continues to fill the void superbly.
The much-criticised Bulgarian is now on 13 for the season, although his second did require a massive deflection off Anton Ferdinand after he had provided United with a fourth-minute opener in a one-sided contest.
It was almost beyond comprehension that United were not out of sight by half-time.
Not only had they scored an early goal, they had also struck the woodwork on two occasions, Wayne Rooney had twice come close to grabbing that elusive first goal in open play since March and both Berbatov and Ryan Giggs had threatened terror at every turn.
In response, under-strength Sunderland failed to muster a single shot.
Yet somehow Steve Bruce remained hopeful of if not gaining that long-awaited win over his old boss, at least not returning to Wearside empty-handed despite missing seven key men.
Berbatov had broken the deadlock in such simple fashion too.
Giggs' driving run through the Sunderland midfield caused the visitors a major headache.
When the veteran laid off a pass to Rooney, Berbatov was in space at the far post.
All his strike partner had to do was find him, which he did with a superb chipped cross which the Bulgarian powered home.
On his last start a month ago, Berbatov scored five and United bagged seven.
For a while it seemed a repeat was on the cards.
Rooney floated an excellent chip narrowly wide. Berbatov thudded a shot against the post. Anderson weaved his way into space on the edge of the area and curled a shot that beat Gordon but crashed down off the bar.
The Scotland keeper was relieved to see another Berbatov effort flash into the side-netting, then saved with his feet as Giggs threatened.
Amid all this, Rooney had let fly from the edge of the area and had Gordon scrambling to make the save.
Yet, as Phil Dowd blew his whistle to end the punishment, Sunderland had still only conceded once, knowing United had shown enough weakness earlier in the season to remain vulnerable.
As if to prove how precarious their position was, United's goal came under threat at the start of the second period.
First Steed Malbranque, then Asamoah Gyan tried their luck, the latter man blazing over with a volley from an acute angle.
The sense of foreboding was increasing amongst the home fans. But the worries were brought to an end when United benefited from a slice of luck they should not have needed.
With Rooney's overlapping run offering Berbatov space after Anderson had picked out the Bulgarian with a pass he delivered whilst appearing to look the other way, a shot was lined up for the right corner of Gordon's goal.
The keeper committed, Berbatov's effort then struck Anton Ferdinand, whose last-minute own goal in the corresponding fixture last year cost his side their first Old Trafford win since 1968.
This time, it was not so costly but the outcome was just the same as the goal doubled United's advantage.
Almost immediately, Ferguson replaced Anderson and Giggs with Darron Gibson and Federico Macheda.
Anderson did not look particularly impressed but a few consoling words from his manager, no doubt pointing out what lies ahead over the next fortnight, and a standing ovation from the Stretford End, seemed to cheer his mood.
Berbatov almost made it his third hat-trick of the season when he swivelled onto Gibson's wayward shot and let fly with a shot that a startled Gordon could not hold.
Boudewijn Zenden finally managed a shot on target for the Black Cats near the end, although by then, United were playing on autopilot anyway.