For Manchester United this was a Saturday stroll that ended frantically, although the Premier League leaders' latest three points were made even sweeter by the return of their captain, Nemanja Vidic. For the first time since mid-September Sir Alex Ferguson's "warrior" could be regaled with the song that heralds how Vidic "comes from Serbia, he's going to murder you" as he replaced Rio Ferdinand on 67 minutes.

Ferguson praised Vidic, telling MUTV: "He's the captain, he'll always battle for you, he sticks his head on that ball in the penalty box and that's what he's great at."

What the Serb had witnessed before his entrance was his team cruising to a 3-0 lead that appeared to have killed off Sunderland. This was a touch premature. Soon after Vidic took his place, a sleeping United defence watched as Stéphane Sessègnon stood up the ball for the former United player Fraizer Campbell, also a second-half substitute, and he headed home. Sunderland pressed on and might have made the ending squeaky for all home posteriors, especially when Connor Wickham's shot required David de Gea's legs to repel it.

Ferguson did not enjoy the finish. He told BBC Sport: "For about an hour we were fantastic. Some of our football was very good and we could have scored lots of goals. But I don't know what happened after that because Sunderland could have had two or three towards the end of the game, it could have been embarrassing."

Yet, by the end, Wayne Rooney could walk off having tasted the revenge he wrote of in a recent book. In it, he recalled how Sunderland's fans had mocked United when, having beaten the Black Cats 1-0 on last season's final day, Sergio Agüero's late winner for Manchester City against QPR snatched the championship from United.

Here, as early as 22 minutes in, Sunderland's fate might have been sealed. At that juncture it was 2-0 and Rooney had missed two more chances handed to him. Those arrived as the United opening onslaught reached its apotheosis. A buccaneering crossfield run from Phil Jones took him right to left before he found Ashley Young. The winger, among United's brighter performers, played in a deep ball that was cushioned from Robin van Persie's head to Rooney, who from in front of Simon Mignolet put his volley wide. Rooney's second opportunity came following determined work by Patrice Evra down the left. The Frenchman wriggled free and found the striker's head, yet once again Rooney was off target, though close.

Immediately there was scare for United. Ferdinand made a hash of a regulation clearance to allow James McClean to motor towards De Gea at an angle. The Irishman steadied himself and shot, but the keeper saved.

United's opening goals were registered on 16 and 19 minutes. Young made a mug of Carlos Cuéllar down the left and when he fired in the ball, it hit John O'Shea and found Van Persie. After a moment to compose himself, the finish was calm. This was his 12th Premier League goal for United and his eighth in 10 appearances in all competitions against Sunderland.

The third goal of Tom Cleverley's campaign ended a slick pass-and-go with Michael Carrick who, with Rooney, ran the contest before the break. When Cleverley's slanting run was found by his midfield partner, the instant, right-foot finish was Beckhamesque in its nonchalance.

Ferguson, who said Rafael da Silva was not in the matchday 18 due to a hamstring injury, said: "The goal by Tom Cleverley was a marvellous piece of interchange play, a first-time, one-touch finish, really a superb goal. That was the way we were playing at that point and I have no complaints about that first hour. It was wonderful to watch."

When the sides emerged for the second half, Carrick had been replaced by Paul Scholes, and Wickham was on for Steven Fletcher, with each thought to have come off after suffering injuries.

The normal service of the opening hour or so was soon resumed, and this time Rooney took his chance. Young looked to have over-hit a pass to Van Persie. But, as geniuses can, the Dutchman turned this to a telling advantage. As Cuéllar and Titus Bramble squeezed him, Van Persie became the missing filling in a sandwich they hoped to make as he slipped between them and rolled the ball to Rooney. United's No10 made it a fifth in his past three league outings with a simple, close-range finish.

Martin O'Neill, who confirmed he hopes to strengthen his squad in the winter transfer window, said of his side who are point above the drop zone: "The spirit is still there and I don't think that's been broken."