Sunderland 1 Manchester United 2
Federico Macheda climbed off the bench to snatch victory for the second time in a week as Manchester United clawed their way back to the top of the Barclays Premier League table.
The 17-year-old Italian needed just seconds to claim three points for his side with a 76th-minute winner at Sunderland and send the reigning champions back above Liverpool, who had briefly headed them as a result of their 4-0 win over Blackburn.
His intervention could not have been more timely with the Black Cats having dragged themselves back into the game courtesy of Kenwyne Jones’ 55th-minute equaliser, his first goal since February 7.
United looked to be in complete control when Paul Scholes capped a dominant start by heading the visitors into a 19th-minute lead, but they allowed the Wearsiders back into the game in front of a partisan crowd of 45,408.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s troops will now regroup ahead of their testing Champions League quarter-final, second leg trip to Porto on Wednesday evening knowing they remain a point clear of Liverpool with a game in hand in the race for the Premier League title.
By contrast, Sunderland face a monumental home clash with fellow strugglers Hull at the Stadium of Light next weekend with their top-flight status very much in the balance.
For 20 minutes, United looked to be cruising with Scholes and Carrick in complete control in the middle of the park and Wayne Rooney a real menace wide on the left side of midfield.
Rooney fired a shot across the Black Cats’ bows within 16 seconds of kick-off when he curled a right-foot effort just wide, but as the game unfolded, it seemed only a matter of time before his side took the lead.
They would have done just that with 17 minutes gone had Danny Collins not hacked Nemanja Vidic’s towering header off the line and then looked on as the Serbia international sent an overhead kick just wide with United laying siege.
Ferguson’s men did not have to wait much longer to edge their way in front when Rooney cut inside on to his right foot to deliver the perfect cross for the unmarked Scholes to glance a deft header past the stranded Craig Gordon and into the top corner.
Sunderland went close to an equaliser twice within seconds on the half-hour when first Djibril Cisse and then defender Calum Davenport, making his first start for the club, met Phil Bardsley crosses.
Then Kenwyne Jones fired just wide from another ball in from the right-back.
Keeper Ben Foster, deputising for Edwin van der Sar, had to tip Cisse’s rasping 37th-minute effort from distance over, but he needed the help of the woodwork five minutes before the break.
Carlos Edwards, recalled on the right-wing, skipped past full-back John O’Shea and saw his driven cross flick off former team-mate Jonny Evans, only for the ball to come back off the foot of the post.
Park Ji-Sung smashed a shot across Gordon in first-half injury-time after United broke swiftly, but the visitors returned to the dressing room knowing the game was still very much alive.
United re-emerged looking as if they meant business with Rooney seemingly intent on securing the points single-handedly.
In the space of four minutes, he forced Davenport to cut out a cross and concede a corner, and also drilled a 25-yard effort inches wide.
The equaliser arrived with 55 minutes gone when Foster failed to claim Teemu Tainio’s cross under pressure from Jones, and the striker stabbed the ball into the empty net to peg the visitors back.
Scholes smashed a volley wide and Carlos Tevez curled a free-kick over, and it took a fine block by Bardsley to keep out the Argentinean’s 63rd-minute effort after Scholes and Dimitar Berbatov had combined to play him in.
The rested Cristiano Ronaldo eventually joined the fray as a 69th-minute replacement for Park, but Cisse shot into the side-netting within seconds of his arrival.
Berbatov had appeals for a penalty for handball against Grant Leadbitter waved away two minutes later, but it was Macheda’s arrival as a 75th-minute replacement for the Bulgarian which changed the game.
The youngster had been on the pitch for just seconds when he steered Carrick’s shot past the helpless Gordon to further enhance his blossoming reputation.