It maybe the start of a new year but it was the same old Manchester United which broke brave Black Cat hearts at Old Trafford this afternoon.
Stout defending and Jurgen Macho’s inspired goalkeeping had combined to prevent United levelling Juan Sebastian Veron’s bizarre own-goal as the match entered its final 10 minutes.
But, as so often in the past, the Red Devils had a wicked late laugh as David Beckham and Paul Scholes finally found the target to revive their own side’s title dream and condemn Sunderland to the most galling of defeats.
It was a personal triumph for Veron, whose inexplicable decision to try and head clear a deflected Gavin McCann lob after just six minutes when Rio Ferdinand would have cleared easily had rebounded on him in the most disastrous fashion when he only managed to find the top corner of his own goal.
The Veron of three months ago might have withered into his shell and gone into hiding. But today the he stood tall, responding to Roy Keane’s prompting and Beckham’s industry.
And United’s persistence paid off when Mikael Silvestre hooked the ball back into the box for Scholes to head home a last-gasp winner.
It was cruel luck on the visitors, and especially Macho, at times a one-man defensive barricade. But the mountain of United chances deserved some reward, even if it looked as though it wouldn’t arrive.
Given Sunderland’s perilous plight, United’s desperate need for victory and the fact that the visitors had not won at Old Trafford since 1968, most pundits wouldn’t have given the fixture more than a cursory glance before ticking it off as a home win.
But Howard Wilkinson has already triumphed at United’s expense once in his career, when his Leeds side snatched the title from the Red Devils’ grasp just over a decade ago.
And within six minutes, Wilkinson was celebrating again, although the goal which put his side in front came almost entirely as a result of calamitous home blunders, which started when Fabien Barthez failed to collect a Paul Thirlwell free-kick from the right.
The loose ball offered McCann an inviting opportunity to lob from the edge of the area, yet the Scottish international didn’t strike his shot with much confidence and could hardly have expected the effort to have finished up in the top corner of United’s goal as it looped off Keane.
Having already seen their side spurn a couple of early chances, the home fans seemed unconcerned at the setback, expecting no doubt, a swift riposte and ultimate stroll to victory.
Unfortunately, top scorer Ruud van Nistelrooy was sat in the stand nursing his infected toe, Ryan Giggs had been left on the bench again, and the on-field troops could not breach the massed ranks of the Wearsiders defence.
Paul Scholes came close, smashing a shot against the inside of a post, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was even nearer, nodding a brilliant Veron cross back beyond Macho, only for Phil Babb to head off the line.
But if the Sunderland keeper had been beaten on those two occasions, he provided an omnipresent barrier for the rest of the half.
The Austrian’s best save was undoubtedly the full length effort he produced to prevent Beckham’s curling free-kick arrowing into the corner, but there were plenty of others, to deny Scholes, Diego Forlan, Solskjaer and Veron.
Even with Keane on the field, Beckham was the inspiration behind United but their task was only made harder by the loss of Barthez, who limped unhappily away just before the half hour to give Roy Carroll his first taste of Premiership action since the 1-1 draw between the teams in August.
That game was scarred by Keane’s late dismissal for elbowing Jason McAteer in the head.
McAteer’s hernia problem ensured there was no repeat of that fracas, although Ferguson must have feared a similarly disappointing afternoon as his team failed to capitalise on more pressure immediately after the interval.
Macho was eager to pick up the hero’s mantle again, and flew out to block Solksjaer’s effort after Forlan had flicked a pass to the Norwegian.
Veron was then denied when his audacious chip was tipped over by the Sunderland keeper at full stretch before Macho then denied Ferdinand with a fine feet first save after a Beckham cross had arrived at his feet.
It was all too much for Britain’s most expensive player, who had earlier picked up his first caution since 1999 for a foul on Darren Williams, and he lashed out at an advertising hoarding in frustration.
Not that defensive brilliance was exclusively Sunderland’s preserve. Wes Brown produced a piece of perfection to prevent Thirlwell and Phillips carving out a chance as they raced forward from halfway with just the England international to beat.
By then, Ferguson had opted for a three-man rearguard, throwing Giggs on for O’Shea in a desperate search for an equaliser.
The ferocity of the attacking grew as the seconds ticked by and slowly Sunderland started to crumble.
Beckham chested down Rio Ferdinand’s route one pass to knock the first few bricks out before Scholes delivered the final hammer blow which signalled total collapse.