Manchester United's stroll reveals gathering shadows at Sunderland

• Home side's poor display leads to Martin O'Neill's sacking
• Nemanja Vidic wants to play in FA Cup replay at Chelsea

There was a time when Martin O'Neill used to talk about creating such a formidable fortress on the banks of the Wear that England's top teams would fear visiting Sunderland's home.

Yet as the plane carrying Manchester United's players to the north-east touched down at Newcastle airport they almost certainly regarded this trip as a box merely to be ticked before attending to an infinitely more pressing matter.

Defeats by Sir Alex Ferguson's Champions-elect are not usually precursors to managerial sackings but the fact that Sunderland struggled so badly against a side clearly preoccupied by Monday lunchtime's FA Cup quarter-final replay against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge partly explains O'Neill's unceremonious, Saturday night exit.

Ferguson left Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Javier Hernández and Ryan Giggs resting in Manchester but, unfortunately for Sunderland, Robin van Persie not only travelled but also played 90 minutes.

Concerned that Van Persie was enduring a mini-goal drought, the United manager aimed to boost the striker's confidence by giving him a run at O'Neill's defence and he was rewarded by seeing his angled left-foot shot deflected beyond Simon Mignolet by Titus Bramble's knee.

After initially showing Van Persie on to his weaker right foot Phil Bardsley, Sunderland's right-back, inexcusably allowed the Dutchman to switch back on to his left before unleashing the afternoon's decisive shot.

It was basic bad defending, something highlighted by the manner in which United assiduously ushered James McClean, O'Neill's very left-footed winger, on to his ineffective side at every opportunity.

Although United played well within themselves, slowing the game down at every opportunity, Sunderland's lack of threat was emphasised by the statistic that a scuffed 90th-minute shot from the substitute striker Connor Wickham that was easily saved by David de Gea represented their sole shot on target all afternoon.

If this was an awful indictment of a side without a win in eight games, so too was the sight of the utterly ineffective £10m signing, the former Manchester City and England winger Adam Johnson, struggling for fitness and blowing horribly after 20 minutes.

Even though Sunderland did apply a spot of second-half, principally aerial, pressure and finally began closing down Shinji Kagawa, regular United watchers said they had rarely seen Ferguson looking as happy and relaxed during a match.

With O'Neill having hightailed it straight down the tunnel at the final whistle, the Scot ambled off the pitch apparently exchanging a joke with Kevin Friend, the referee.

Ferguson will have been particularly pleased by the performance of Alex Büttner, deputising for Patrice Evra – resting on the bench – at left-back, who, on this evidence at least, looks an outstanding prospect blessed with real attacking, as well as defensive, ability.

It helped that Büttner was playing in a defence marshalled by Nemanja Vidic, who clearly hopes he can somehow persuade his manager to play him twice in 48 hours.

"You want to be there for the big, important games," said the Serbia centre-half. "I want to win the FA Cup but first we must beat Chelsea."

Vidic's only false note on Saturday came when he inadvertently clouted De Gea in the face in an airborne collision that left United's goalkeeper requiring prolonged treatment. After watching De Gea keep six successive Premier League clean sheets, Ferguson must pray he suffers no ill effects before Monday's date with Rafael Benítez's players.

Rafael da Silva, though, will almost certainly be absent, the right-back having been replaced by Jonny Evans after hobbling off with a first-half groin problem.

By then Sunderland, shockingly static throughout, were all but down and out. After collecting three points from the last 24 and scoring only six goals along the way, a team deprived of their injured leading scorer, Steven Fletcher, and captain, Lee Cattermole, until the end of the season look Championship-bound, particularly as Danny Graham made minimal impact in a lone striking role.

Ellis Short, the Sunderland owner, is surely justified in believing that O'Neill was failing to get the best out of his more talented individuals, including not only Johnson but also the mercurial creator Stéphane Sessègnon.

At times the contrast between United's fluid, positional inter-changing, passing and movement and the home side's often one-paced, one-dimensional approach was painful.

Shortly before the Northern Irishman's sacking, John O'Shea, the Sunderland captain and a former United defender, agreed something had gone very wrong.

"From last season it's been a poor return from everyone," he acknowledged. "Everyone has to take responsibility.

"You need that bit of quality to score goals and create chances and that's something we are going to have to keep working on. We have to keep believing we can do it."

It sounded suspiciously like a cry for help. Short can only trust O'Neill's replacement somehow answers it – soon.

Man of the match Alex Büttner (Manchester United)

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