The year is almost at an end and a familiar old devil finds himself atop the tree once again.
Sir Alex Ferguson will turn 69 on Friday but there is still time for three more points tomorrow against Birmingham City before he blows out the candles on another 12 months in the job. He might have lost his grip on the Premier League title in 2010 but, as has so often been the case, Ferguson once again finds himself surveying the rest of the division from the top.
There have been so many afternoons for Ferguson like this one in his 24 years at Old Trafford when his side have proved too accomplished, even for one of the league's emergent teams, and coasted to a victory that never looked in doubt.
United have a two-point lead as well as two games in hand over Manchester City in second place and Arsenal and Chelsea collide this evening with both of them trying to stay in touch with Ferguson's side. United are still unbeaten in 17 games in a record that stretches in the league back to that defeat to Chelsea in April. No wonder Ferguson is smiling.
Against a Sunderland side with seven first-team players missing, there were occasions yesterday when United really should have racked up something like the seven they scored against Blackburn Rovers one month ago.
It was Dimitar Berbatov who scored United's two goals, the second a hefty deflection off Anton Ferdinand, which proved the difference. Berbatov has 13 league goals this season, the Premier League's top goalscorer, and although this was one of his better afternoons he was not his side's most eye-catching player.
That was Luis Anderson, a dominant figure in midfield who was substituted just after the hour and afforded a standing ovation. He showed his usual indifference to authority when substituted by wriggling out from under the arm that Ferguson laid around his shoulder and heading straight down the tunnel. On the basis of this performance he can be forgiven most things.
Anderson, who signed a new contract this month until 2015, is again threatening to become the kind of player Ferguson always hoped he would be when he signed him in 2007. But United have been here before with their stroppy little Brazilian midfielder. He could potentially be a star of the next five months but he could also fade away.
It will be Alex McLeish, another of Ferguson's old boys, whom he faces tomorrow and it is the fate of the elder statesman of English football that he keeps running into those men who once played for him. Given that yesterday was the 17th occasion as a manager that Steve Bruce has failed to beat Ferguson's United, it is no great hardship.
Ferguson mentioned after the game the fact that McLeish's Birmingham City will be "nice and fresh" for tomorrow's game after yesterday's against Everton at Goodison Park was postponed and it seemed to be on his mind all afternoon. He substituted Anderson and Ryan Giggs, another impressive performer, with little more than an hour gone and Berbatov a few minutes later.
Before they go to St Andrew's, Ferguson will watch the outcome of tonight's game at the Emirates with interest. Chelsea need to win if they are to stay within touching distance of United and City, and failure to do that will again put a very different accent on the title race. It is hard not to feel that, as things stand, the pieces seem to be falling into place for Ferguson.
Bruce declined the offer from the Stretford End to give the home fans a wave – a wise choice, given the battering his team took in the first 20 minutes. He got himself in trouble with the Birmingham City supporters a few years ago for waving at the United support during another defeat and this was one of those occasions when Bruce knew early on there was unlikely to be anything in this game for his team.
In defence of Bruce, he played the same attacking 4-4-2 formation that earned him a 3-0 win at Stamford Bridge this season, although this time it did not work so well. By his own admission he was "naive" to hope that a system that included two wingers and two strikers might plunder something at United, although there were some extremely poor performances among the away side.
Yesterday it was Darren Bent who partnered Asamoah Gyan in attack and the England striker was embarrassingly anonymous. The suspension of Lee Cattermole meant that Bruce had to play Cristian Riveros in midfield and he too struggled.
For the first 10 minutes of the game, United set about their work as if they intended to see Sunderland off before half-time. It was a reminder of those days of the triple title-winning team that starred Cristiano Ronaldo when visiting teams found themselves caught in a whirlwind.
The goal came in the fifth minute. Giggs surged forward from midfield and, having found his way past a couple of challenges, passed responsibility to Wayne Rooney in the right channel. He weighted his chip to the back post and Berbatov forced in his header from close range.
United were breathtaking in those first few minutes and it was not hard to imagine Ferguson cursing every chance that went begging. Berbatov hit the post with a shot, then Anderson struck the bar. The Sunderland goalkeeper Craig Gordon did the most to keep his team in it with a save with his feet from Giggs in the 20th minute. At 1-0 his side still had a faint hope of something.
That expired just before the hour when Anderson played a ball out to the right – complete with the extravagant Ronaldinho-style look in the opposite direction – and Berbatov hit a shot with the outside of his right which cannoned off Anton Ferdinand and deceived Gordon.
Sunderland face Blackpool tomorrow and, with that in mind, it was telling how quickly Bruce gave up any hope of a point from the game yesterday. He even gave his young substitutes David Meyler and Jordan Cooke a run-out and risked a third goal. This was United's afternoon and Bruce has seen enough of them in his time to recognise a defeat when he sees one.
Subs: Manchester United Gibson (Anderson, 63), Macheda (Giggs, 63), Hernandez (Berbatov, 82). Sunderland Meyler (Bent, 69), Cook (Malbranque, 82), Angeleri (Zenden, 88).
Booked: Sunderland Bardsley, Meyler.
Man of the match Anderson. Match rating 6/10.
Referee P Dowd (Staffordshire).
Attendance 75,269.Reuse content