Red Devils now have virtually one hand on the title.
Manchester United moved a step closer to winning this season’s Premier League after a slender 1-0 win at relegation-threatened Sunderland in the early kick-off sent the visitors’ 18 points clear of champions Manchester City in second.
With an FA Cup quarter-final replay at Chelsea on Monday, Ferguson shuffled his pack by recalling Rafael, Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia and Shinji Kagawa, while Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney were completely rested.
The visitors took the lead in the 27th minute when Robin van Persie’s drilled cross from the left was inadvertently deflected into the net by Sunderland defender Titus Bramble.
Sunderland rallied in the second period and there was a scare for United when goalkeeper David de Gea clashed heads with captain Nemanja Vidic in the 61st minute.
De Gea needed attention from United’s medical staff but he was able to continue and produced a smart save to prevent Sunderland substitute Connor Wickham from claiming an equaliser in injury time.
Victory was especially sweet for United as Sunderland’s fans had celebrated exuberantly at the Stadium of Light on the final day of last season when United found out they had been pipped to the Premier League title by City.
Defeat left Sunderland four points above the relegation zone in 16th place, although they have played at least a game more than all the teams below them.
City, who travel to United in the league a week on Monday, can trim the leaders’ advantage back to 15 points if they win at home to Newcastle United later on Saturday.
All of the top six are in action on Saturday, with third-place Chelsea, four points behind Roberto Mancini’s side, hoping to capitalise on any slip-ups by the champions when they visit Southampton.
Fourth-place Tottenham Hotspur visit Swansea City and Arsenal, fifth, host second-bottom Reading before sixth-place Everton welcome Stoke City to Goodison Park in the late kick-off.