LONDON – Manchester United took a step closer to the Premier League title with a 2-0 win at Stoke City on Sunday that saw them re-establish a 15-point lead over Manchester City at the top of the table.
Michael Carrick gave United an early lead and Robin van Persie completed victory by claiming his first club goal in 11 games from the penalty spot mid-way through the second half.
Victory allowed the leaders to return to winning ways after Monday’s loss in the Manchester derby, and although City have a game in hand, their hopes of a late United collapse appear forlorn.
“I have told the players that we are going to take the next six games as the start of the season and try to win them all,” said United manager Alex Ferguson.
“Would we fancy ourselves to win that league? I think we would.”
Stoke, meanwhile, find themselves in real danger of slipping into the relegation zone, having won just once in 13 league games in 2013.
Tony Pulis’ side currently sit three points above the relegation zone, but they have played two games more than third-bottom Wigan Athletic.
United, who played with Wayne Rooney in midfield, broke the deadlock in the fourth minute at a windswept Britannia Stadium.
Phil Jones met a right-wing corner from van Persie and with the ball bobbling around the area, Carrick stuck out his foot to toe it into the bottom-left corner.
In response, Robert Huth headed over for Stoke, while Rooney whipped a long-range free-kick narrowly wide shortly before half-time.
Van Persie ended his two-month wait for a United goal in the 66th minute, steering a penalty past Asmir Begovic after he had been felled inside the area by Andy Wilkinson.
The Dutchman celebrated by embracing Ferguson on the touchline, but only a brilliant David de Gea save to keep out a Charlie Adam free-kick spared United from an edgy finale.
“It was a big win, let me put it that way,” said van Persie, who has now scored 20 league goals this season.
“My goal came at an important point in the game, but the main thing today was to win. It was all about the win – I wouldn’t have cared who had scored the goal.”
Earlier, Sunderland won 3-0 at local rivals Newcastle United to fire their bid to avoid relegation and give Paolo Di Canio a memorable victory in his first northeast derby.
Stephane Sessegnon, Adam Johnson and David Vaughan scored three excellent goals, moving Sunderland three points clear of the bottom three and to within two points of Alan Pardew’s Newcastle.
“I’m happy for my players because they were warriors today,” Di Canio told BBC Sport.
“I was excited to see our fans celebrate because I know what it means to win here. Yes, it’s a big win in terms of the area, but it’s only one step and and not a big step in terms of the table.”
Sessegnon broke the deadlock mid-way through a frantic first half at St James’ Park.
The recalled James McClean picked up a loose pass from Jonas Gutierrez and fed Sessegnon, who held off Gutierrez and drilled a low shot past goalkeeper Tim Krul from 25 yards.
Di Canio’s reaction was typically effusive, the new Sunderland manager sprinting down the touchline and punching the air in delight.
Newcastle received a blow shortly before the hour when Krul had to go off after landing awkwardly, with Rob Elliot coming on in his place.
Manager Pardew later revealed Krul had sustained a dislocated shoulder, ruling him out for rest of the season.
The hosts had a goal controversially disallowed for offside in the 62nd minute, despite Papiss Cisse appearing to be onside when he fired home from close range.
Johnson made it 2-0 with a fine goal in the 74th minute, drifting in from the right and shaping a 20-yard shot inside the left-hand post. This time, Di Canio opted for a knee slide.
Vaughan killed the game with eight minutes to play by arrowing a glorious shot into the top-right corner from 20 yards, although the Welshman appeared to be offside when he received the ball.
“We were better in the second half but the crucial moment in the game was when our goal was ruled out for offside,” said Pardew.
“This won’t leave me because it’s our home and we don’t want to get beat by our rivals. I will make sure it hurts the players.”