Manchester United saw off the challenge of Sunderland - sending the Black Cats back into the relegation zone.
A blistering break culminated in Wayne Rooney eluding Kelvin Davis and sliding the ball home for United's opener.
Rooney played in Ruud van Nistelrooy for the Dutch striker to double the lead before Stephen Elliott's long-range strike pulled a goal back.
Anthony Le Tallec then went close to equalising before Guiseppe Rossi scored his first United goal from 20 yards.
Sunderland played with great enthusiasm and commitment but, especially in the final third, lacked the quality that United possess in abundance.
After Rooney's 40th-minute goal, United's passing noticeably improved and it was no surprise when Van Nistelrooy extended the visitors' lead.
United, who play Lille at home in the Champions League on Tuesday, needed the three points to ensure they do not lose more ground on Chelsea, who thrashed Bolton.
But for Mick McCarthy the headaches remain - his team have still to win at home this season, or indeed take anything from a game after falling behind.
The Black Cats boss can take encouragement from the way his team started the match.
They created the first real opening, Edwin van der Sar pushing Gary Breen's near-post header against the woodwork and away to safety.
Sheer desire to win a series of 50-50 challenges then created an opening for Elliott, who quickly turned and shot just wide of Van der Sar's goal from 20 yards.
The home team continued to pressurise and should have scored when a cross fell to Andy Welsh in plenty of space at the far post, but he dallied too long on the ball, allowing Van der Sar saved at his feet.
United eventually threatened through Van Nistelrooy, whose shot was deflected for a corner by a superb block from Nyron Newsworthy.
But despite a largely uninspiring opening 40 minutes from the visiting team, Rooney's goal outlined United's ability to turn defence into attack.
Van Nistelrooy flicked John O'Shea's pass onto Ji-Sung Park, who in turn squared for Rooney to close in on goal.
After rounding Davis, the United striker scored from a tight angle with a shot that Justin Hoyte just failed to stop with a desperate goal-line slide.
Sunderland came out for the second half with real intent but, despite all their endeavour, had Davis to thank for keeping them in the game.
Van Nistelrooy seemed certain to convert Rooney's drilled cross before Davis deflected the ball out of his path.
The Dutch striker then came within inches of heading United's second from a Cristiano Ronaldo cross as United started to turn the screw.
McCarthy responded by introducing Jon Stead and Le Tallec.
But Van Nistelrooy sealed victory, shooting across and beyond Davis after Rooney had played him in.
Elliott ensured a dramatic finish with a brilliant strike past Van der Sar - and United's keeper had to make a brilliant last-gasp save to prevent Le Tallec from equalising with a free-kick.
United made sure of victory when substitute Rossi found the back of the net.
Sunderland manager Mick McCarthy:
"I'm always disappointed when we get beat - but in the first half we played very well and took the game to them.
"Then we got mugged a bit. We allowed them to break on us and their goal knocked the stuffing out of us.
"Manchester United know they have been in a game and perhaps the 3-1 scoreline is a bit harsh."
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson:
"With us having players away on international duty I always worry about the first 20 minutes.
"I think we were fortunate to be 1-0 up at half-time - Sunderland played very well and didn't get any joy for it.
"They put a lot of crosses into our box, they put us under pressure and played at a very lively pace."
Sunderland: Davis, Nosworthy, Breen, Caldwell, Hoyte, Lawrence (Le Tallec 62), Whitehead, Miller, Welsh (Robinson 86), Elliott, Gray (Stead 62).
Subs Not Used: Alnwick, Collins.
Booked: Whitehead, Caldwell, Stead.
Goals: Elliott 82.
Man Utd: Van der Sar, Bardsley, Ferdinand, Silvestre, O'Shea (Pique 89), Park, Smith, Scholes, Rooney, van Nistelrooy (Rossi 78), Ronaldo (Miller 89).
Subs Not Used: Howard, Fletcher.
Goals: Rooney 40, van Nistelrooy 76, Rossi 87.
Ref: S Bennett (Kent).