Over 47,000 present, Sir Alex Ferguson in one dugout, Roy Keane in the other, a debut for a 17-year-old local striker called Martyn Waghorn and two teams in equal need of points: all that and this still felt like a gala practice game, a mismatch from the 20th minute when Wayne Rooney was given the freedom of Wearside to make it 1-0. There were times when Manchester United's superiority over Sunderland made the neutral wince, so God only knows how Keane felt as he stood, arms folded, on the touchline.
So much sharper on an individual and collective level, it took United little time to size up their hosts. Once that was done and Rooney was left alone to score his first goal for a couple of months, the afternoon was about goal difference.
Louis Saha added a second 10 minutes later and the scintilla of doubt about the outcome was obliterated in first-half injury-time when Cristiano Ronaldo guided a blistering free-kick past Craig Gordon. It was Ronaldo's 15th goal in his last 13 games.
Ferguson was able to withdraw Ronaldo before the hour, and Nemanja Vidic before Saha added a late penalty. The United manager had already rested Ryan Giggs, Owen Hargreaves and left Carlos Tevez on the bench. They are all in contention for the trip to West Ham on Saturday. The victory, United's 14th in their past 16 matches, took them above Arsenal and, as they awaited news from Portsmouth, United's goal difference became 27 to Arsenal's 21.
That could be telling come May, just as it could be for Sunderland, who dropped a place to second-bottom. Entrenched in the relegation battle, their goal difference is now minus 21. It could have been worse; Gordon had one of his better 90 minutes at home.
"It was an excellent performance," said Ferguson. "Our passing, sharpness was very good all-round. The first goal put us in the driving seat because Sunderland are going through the stickiest part of their season.
"It was well-taken by Wayne and after that he did really well. He has gone seven games without a goal and he's also had an injury. But I think he's close to what you would expect of him." Ronaldo, Vidic and Rio Ferdinand were all impressive yesterday but Rooney was outstanding, his sheer speed startling Sunderland. There was guile and toughness, too.
"A touch of class", was how Keane described United. "They can go on a run of 20, 30 games. They flexed their muscles today and they had players missing. My money's still on United [to win League], that's not wavered one bit. They are very good at attacking but their two centre-halves aren't bad either."
As for Sunderland, Keane was "pleased with my players, their attitude", but he knows reality is closing in. Several of his team, here and in previous games, simply do not look strong enough to survive. Keane accepted that Sunderland "lack quality" and that rectifying that in January will not be easy.
"We're in a massive, massive battle and we're in a sticky patch. The best team will win the League and the three worst will go down. I don't believe that we are one of those three but we need some positive results to back that up."
It begins against Bolton here on Saturday. If Sunderland defend as they did yesterday, then they will lose again.
Keane's frustration was that Sunderland contributed significantly to each of United's goals. Paul McShane was missing as Rooney scored, Danny Collins supplied a dreadful forward pass to Ronaldo that led to the second goal and then brought down Nani for the fourth. Kenwyne Jones would have garnered more sympathy for his difficulties up front had he not given the ball away in an attempt at fancy footwork before the third.
Keane, who made his Nottingham Forest debut as a teenager at Anfield, often mentions Brian Clough and there were similarities in Keane's decision to field Waghorn in such a high profile fixture. The 17- year-old hails from nearby South Shields and, on his last appearance on this ground a fortnight ago, scored a hat-trick against Norwich City in the Youth Cup.
Vidic and Ferdinand are a different prospect. Waghorn's touch was "assured" as Keane said, but it was 40 minutes until Tomasz Kuszczak made a save, from Ross Wallace. Jones worked Kuszczak again early in the second half but United were slipping down the gears then.
Even so, Gordon still made blocks from Rooney and Nani; Sunderland's heaviest home defeat under Keane could have been greater. There was, though, a conspicuous show of vocal support from home fans for both team and manager. Sunderland need all the help they can get.
Goals: Rooney (20) 0-1; Saha (30) 0-2; Ronaldo (45) 0-3; Saha (pen 86) 0-4
Sunderland (4-4-2) Gordon; Whitehead, McShane, Higginbotham, Collins; Chopra (O'Donovan 86) Yorke (Richardson 61) Etuhu, Wallace (Leadbitter h-t); Jones, Waghorn Substitutes not used: Ward, Cole
Manchester United (4-4-2) Kuszcak; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic (Pique 74) O'Shea; Ronaldo (Park 58) Fletcher, Carrick, Nani; Rooney, Saha Substitutes not used: Evra, Heaton, Tevez
Booked: Sunderland: McShane, Whitehead Manchester United: Fletcher
Referee: U. Rennie (South Yorkshire)
Man of the match: Rooney
Attendance: 47,360Reuse content