Fergie: Four more wins and United will be champions
ALEX FERGUSON has set his players the task of winning four more games to assure themselves of the Barclays Premier League title.
United briefly extended their lead at the top of the table to 18 points with a 1-0 win at Sunderland, the seventh on the trot, although reigning champions Manchester City reduced the deficit once again a few hours later with their victory over Newcastle.
The pair meet at Old Trafford next weekend, although there is an FA Cup quarter-final replay trip to Chelsea to come first, and Ferguson is looking no further forward than that.
He said: "We have got to win four games, I think to get there, but the important thing is to focus on the next match, and that's Manchester City at home.
"I think the players have galvanised themselves, their team spirit, their concentration, their focus in every game - and it's 25 wins in 30 league games, which I think is a record, and that's all down to the efforts of the players."
The victory at the Stadium of Light extended United's run to 18 league games without defeat and means they have collected 50 of the last 54 points they have contested.
Midfielder Michael Carrick said: "It's obviously getting closer because it's one game less and we have won again.
"But that's all it is. We have still got to go again. We have got another game on Monday and then obviously City next week, so we will keep going."
The win was secured by Titus Bramble's 27th-minute own goal, and although Sunderland, who have now not won in eight games, rallied after a lacklustre first-half display, they rarely looked like snatching a point.
Bramble can count himself unfortunate - Robin van Persie's shot clipped full-back Phil Bardsley and looked to be flying wide until it hit his knee and nestled inside the far post.
Asked if it was his goal, Van Persie, who had not scored for his club since February 10, said: "Of course, there's no question about that.
"It's been a while, so it's always good to score again. It was a really important goal.
"Today, it was all about the three points, so we got them."
Van Persie also forced two saves from Simon Mignolet before the break with the Black Cats struggling to contain United.
However, Martin O'Neill's men were much improved after the break, although they did not call keeper David de Gea into action until the final minute of the game, and even then he was not over-extended by substitute Connor Wickham's strike.
Van Persie passed up a glorious opportunity to seal victory deep into injury time when he fired straight at Mignolet after Ashley Young had embarrassed Bramble on halfway, but the points were safe.
However, Ferguson was delighted to see Van Persie looking a threat once again.
He said: "I think scoring for Holland in the two internationals has helped him, there's no doubt.
"Goalscorers are like that. When they don't score for two or three games, they start wondering if they are going to score a goal. Then when they do score, they get back into a stream.
"Although they are making a case for an own goal, I thought it was a wicked hit by him. It was a fantastic shot - I don't know whether it was going in, but it certainly was a difficult ball for any goalkeeper to handle."
O'Neill was understandably disappointed by the result, but heartened at the way his players responded in the second half.
He said with a smile: "I am as buoyant now as - I was nearly going to say as I have always been.
"What is it - the half-full or the half-empty glass? I'm even going to the three-quarters full.
"There's a real determination in the dressing room. The players are obviously disappointed, but they can take a lot from the second half.
"Yes, there is a determination about the players in there that we can do it."