Buoyed by recent victories over Manchester City and Tottenham, they made an assured start and went close inside five minutes when the fit-again Wayne Rooney saw a drive parried by Craig Gordon and Ryan Giggs' follow-up was deflected to safety by Phil Bardsley.
United, unbeaten against Sunderland in the league since March 1997, were dominating possession and producing a slick brand of pass-and-move football that the hosts struggled to keep pace with.
But in losing only two of their previous 16 home home league games, the Black Cats have proved what a force they can be at the Stadium of Light and gradually they came into the game.
They stopped affording Paul Scholes and Giggs time and space in midfield and then began to push forward themselves, John Mensah and Lorik Cana both heading wide from promising positions.
The game was flowing from end to end and a sumptuous Giggs drive skimmed the angle of post and bar before United keeper Edwin van der Sar tipped over a fizzing drive from Steed Malbranque.
Sunderland lacked cutting edge - Bruce
It was easy to see why United are holders of the best defensive record in the league as a back five of Van der Sar, John O'Shea, Jonny Evans, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra rebuffed everything that was thrown at them.
But the principle difference between the sides was quality in the final third, illustrated to devastating effect as United opened the scoring.
Giggs, Berbatov, Rooney and Darren Fletcher combined to feed Nani and the Portuguese winger curved a rasping finish across goal and into the bottom corner with the outside of his right foot.
United were stirring and a Giggs cross was almost put into his own net by Michael Turner before Evra had a shot saved and Rooney released Berbatov, only for the Bulgarian to skew wide.
Unfortunately for Sunderland, boss Steve Bruce was forced into making two first-half substitutions after Mensah limped off and David Meyler suffered a serious-looking leg injury following a challenge with Evra.
Phelan admits Man Utd are 'underdogs' for title
United boss Sir Alex Ferguson would have been frustrated at his side's inability to add to their advantage before the break and they came out for the second period as if desperate to put the game to bed as quickly as possible.
A Fletcher backheel sent Nani through but his dinked effort was saved by Gordon and Berbatov wasted another gilt-edged opportunity by volleying over from Rooney's cross.
Rooney again found his strike-partner with a pinpoint centre but this time Berbatov's goalbound header ricocheted off the head of Kieran Richardson and onto the bar.
Sunderland eventually began to assert themselves and half chances came and went, Bardsley earning a caution for unnecessarily falling to the ground after he had burst past Giggs into the box.
It seemed United, who have now gone five away games without conceding, could up the intensity almost at will and after Rooney lashed just wide substitute Carrick was denied by Turner's goal-line clearance.
The reigning champions came under pressure late on but, aided by substitute Rio Ferdinand's return from injury and Owen Hargreaves' first appearance since September 2008, they would not be breached.
Sunderland manager Steve Bruce: "We had some good chances but that final ball wasn't there for us today. We made a fist of it but gave too many balls away too cheaply.
"There was a flatness about the game - usually there is a crackle when you play Manchester United but we were nervous and edgy. We missed that cutting edge and quality in the final third.
"If you see the Premier League as the top eight we're second top of our league. We'll keep trying to improve the squad and get further up the table."
Manchester United assistant Mike Phelan: "We did OK at times. We got the goal and then it was a case of trying to keep possession. We were a bit loose in possession in second half but we managed to hold on.
"This place isn't easy to come to and at times they put us on the back foot. But we had to win and that's what we did.
"We go into the final game and we're underdogs but we'll put on a rousing display. Strange things happen - we've got to beat Stoke and hope something can develop. Wigan are on good form."
90:00+3:18 The referee signals the end of the game.
90:00+2:20 Edwin Van der Sar restarts play with the free kick.
90:00+2:20 Substitution Owen Hargreaves on for Luis Nani.
90:00+2:20 Rio Ferdinand fouled by Kenwyne Jones, the ref awards a free kick.
90:00+0:39 Inswinging corner taken left-footed by Kieran Richardson from the right by-line, Headed effort from deep inside the area by
Fraizer Campbell misses to the left of the goal.
90:00+0:31 Phillip Bardsley sends in a cross, clearance by Rio Ferdinand.
89:42 Luis Nani produces a cross.
88:39 Luis Nani crosses the ball, Craig Gordon makes a save.
88:34 Centre by Ryan Giggs.
87:43 Corner taken left-footed by Ryan Giggs from the left by-line to the near post, clearance made by Michael Turner.
86:47 Substitution Rio Ferdinand joins the action as a substitute, replacing Darren Fletcher.
86:26 Wayne Rooney produces a right-footed shot from the edge of the box and misses to the right of the target.
84:32 Free kick taken by Edwin Van der Sar.
84:32 Booking Booking for Kieran Richardson.
84:27 Foul by Kieran Richardson on Luis Nani, free kick awarded.
81:59 A cross is delivered by Steed Malbranque, Fraizer Campbell produces a right-footed shot from inside the area that clears the
80:50 Direct free kick taken by Paul Scholes.
80:50 Booking Steed Malbranque is booked.
80:45 Unfair challenge on Jonathan Evans by Steed Malbranque results in a free kick.
78:36 Corner taken right-footed by Steed Malbranque from the left by-line, clearance by Ryan Giggs.
78:30 The ball is sent over by Phillip Bardsley, clearance made by John O'Shea.
77:51 Jonathan Evans concedes a free kick for a foul on Darren Bent. Lee Cattermole takes the direct free kick.
77:20 Michael Carrick takes a shot. Clearance by Michael Turner.
76:45 Free kick awarded for a foul by Kenwyne Jones on Patrice Evra. Free kick taken by Edwin Van der Sar.
76:14 Luis Nani gives away a free kick for an unfair challenge on Fraizer Campbell. Craig Gordon restarts play with the free kick.
74:54 Shot from outside the area by Lee Cattermole misses to the left of the goal.
73:23 Free kick taken by Craig Gordon.
73:23 Substitution (Sunderland) makes a substitution, with Kenwyne Jones coming on for Jordan Henderson.
73:23 Darren Fletcher gives away a free kick for an unfair challenge on Lorik Cana.
72:16 Wayne Rooney produces a right-footed shot from just outside the box that goes wide left of the target.
72:03 Darren Fletcher takes a shot. Michael Turner gets a block in.
70:10 Substitution Michael Carrick is brought on as a substitute for Dimitar Berbatov.
69:02 Inswinging corner taken by Steed Malbranque, clearance made by Jonathan Evans.
68:41 Lee Cattermole takes a shot. Darren Fletcher gets a block in.
68:05 Outswinging corner taken right-footed by Jordan Henderson played to the near post, clearance made by Ryan Giggs.
64:48 Patrice Evra is penalised for handball and concedes a free kick. Free kick taken by Phillip Bardsley.
60:36 Free kick awarded for an unfair challenge on Darren Fletcher by Steed Malbranque. Paul Scholes takes the free kick.
59:39 Shot from long distance by Lorik Cana misses to the right of the goal.
55:58 Ryan Giggs takes the outswinging corner, Shot by Paul Scholes. Steed Malbranque gets a block in.
55:39 Ryan Giggs delivers the ball, Dimitar Berbatov takes a shot. Save by Craig Gordon.
55:02 Booking Phillip Bardsley receives a yellow card.
53:51 Free kick taken by Matthew Kilgallon.
53:51 Booking Wayne Rooney booked.
53:43 Wayne Rooney challenges Lorik Cana unfairly and gives away a free kick.
52:56 The ball is sent over by Wayne Rooney.
52:32 A cross is delivered by Luis Nani, clearance made by Matthew Kilgallon.
51:26 Wayne Rooney produces a cross, Strike from close range by Dimitar Berbatov clears the bar.
49:27 Centre by Wayne Rooney.
48:44 Shot by Luis Nani from 6 yards. Save by Craig Gordon.
47:13 The ball is delivered by Luis Nani, save made by Craig Gordon.
46:22 Corner taken by Ryan Giggs from the right by-line to the near post, clearance made by Lorik Cana.
45:59 Michael Turner concedes a free kick for a foul on Ryan Giggs. Free kick taken by Ryan Giggs.
45:01 The game restarts for the second half.
45:00+4:12 The whistle is blown to end the first half.
45:00+3:29 Corner taken by Steed Malbranque from the left by-line played to the near post, Patrice Evra makes a clearance.
45:00+2:30 Dimitar Berbatov has an effort at goal from deep inside the area missing to the right of the goal.
45:00+1:38 Matthew Kilgallon crosses the ball.
45:00+0:21 Patrice Evra takes a shot. Save by Craig Gordon.
44:31 Phillip Bardsley crosses the ball.
43:01 The ball is swung over by Patrice Evra, Kieran Richardson makes a clearance.
42:31 Luis Nani sends in a cross, Phillip Bardsley makes a clearance.
41:21 Lorik Cana takes a shot and cleared the bar.
40:29 Inswinging corner taken right-footed by Steed Malbranque played to the near post, Edwin Van der Sar makes a save.
40:16 Booking Nemanja Vidic booked for dissent.
39:37 Foul by Luis Nani on Kieran Richardson, free kick awarded. Free kick taken by Steed Malbranque.
38:39 Unfair challenge on Patrice Evra by Phillip Bardsley results in a free kick. Free kick crossed left-footed by Ryan Giggs from
left wing, Michael Turner makes a clearance.
37:18 The assistant referee flags for offside against Darren Bent. Free kick taken by Paul Scholes.
36:35 Substitution Lee Cattermole replaces David Meyler.
31:29 Steed Malbranque takes the inswinging corner, Ryan Giggs manages to make a clearance.
31:23 Centre by Steed Malbranque, Darren Fletcher gets a block in.
30:32 Fraizer Campbell fouled by Jonathan Evans, the ref awards a free kick. Steed Malbranque crosses the ball in from the free
kick, save made by Edwin Van der Sar.
29:19 Ryan Giggs takes the outswinging corner, save by Craig Gordon.
29:14 Ryan Giggs delivers the ball, clearance by Michael Turner.
27:30 Assist by Darren Fletcher.
27:30 GOAL - Luis Nani:Sunderland 0 - 1 Man Utd Luis Nani finds the back of the net with a goal from inside the penalty area to the bottom left corner of the goal. Sunderland
0-1 Man Utd.
27:13 Darren Fletcher crosses the ball, clearance made by Michael Turner.
24:02 Corner taken right-footed by Steed Malbranque from the left by-line, Jonathan Evans makes a clearance.
23:48 Shot by Steed Malbranque from 25 yards. Save by Edwin Van der Sar.
21:49 Ryan Giggs takes the chance to get an effort at goal.
20:34 The ball is swung over by Phillip Bardsley.
18:27 Foul by Lorik Cana on Patrice Evra, free kick awarded. Edwin Van der Sar takes the free kick.
16:54 Substitution John Mensah leaves the field to be replaced by Matthew Kilgallon.
14:53 Free kick awarded for an unfair challenge on Fraizer Campbell by Jonathan Evans. The ball is swung over by Steed Malbranque,
Header on goal by Lorik Cana from inside the box goes harmlessly over the target.
14:16 Paul Scholes gives away a free kick for an unfair challenge on David Meyler. John Mensah takes the free kick.
12:26 Corner taken by Jordan Henderson from the right by-line to the near post, Headed effort from deep inside the area by John
Mensah misses to the right of the goal.
12:19 The ball is delivered by Steed Malbranque, Jonathan Evans makes a clearance.
11:40 Centre by Luis Nani, clearance by Phillip Bardsley.
10:37 Foul by Steed Malbranque on Luis Nani, free kick awarded. Free kick taken by Ryan Giggs.
8:22 Kieran Richardson takes a shot. Blocked by Nemanja Vidic.
6:23 Kieran Richardson concedes a free kick for a foul on Luis Nani. Darren Fletcher takes the direct free kick.
4:36 Free kick awarded for an unfair challenge on Steed Malbranque by John O'Shea. Free kick taken by John Mensah.
Correction - 4:07 Ryan Giggs takes a shot. Phillip Bardsley gets a block in.
4:07 Ryan Giggs takes a shot. Save made by Craig Gordon.
3:52 Wayne Rooney takes a shot. Save by Craig Gordon.
1:34 Luis Nani crosses the ball, Phillip Bardsley makes a clearance.
0:00 The referee gets the game underway.
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