FOR the third game in a row, interim head coach Kevin Ball was proud of his players.
But it was a pride tinged with regret as Paolo Di Canio’s would-be successor saw his side take an early lead, only to succumb to two second-half goals from Premier League debutant Adnan Januzaj.
“I’m a little disappointed that having got ourselves into a good position we couldn’t go on to get something out of the game,” Ball explained.
“We had played well, scored one goal, could easily have had another and at half-time I was very happy and let the players know how well I thought they had played.
“We knew it was going to be difficult for us in the second half because we knew we were going to have to dig deep.
“But then we conceded two goals soon after the break and having looked back at them, we felt they could both have been prevented with a bit better communication.”
It took the hosts just five minutes to get their noses in front, although the goal arrived courtesy of some calamitous defending which rather set the tone for United’s first-half display.
Emanuele Giaccherini tricked his way past Patrice Evra on the Sunderland right all too easily and fired in a cross which Phil Jones thumped straight at team-mate Nemanja Vidic.
The Serbia international could do little more than present the ball to the fast-arriving Gardner, who drilled a low shot across keeper David de Gea and into the bottom corner.
Few inside the Stadium of Light expected anything other than a ruthless fightback from the visitors, but United’s efforts to get themselves back into the game were subdued at best.
Januzaj fired in a series of shots from distance, most of which were blocked by a defence in which the recalled Valentin Roberge in particular proved impressively stubborn, while Wayne Rooney, back in the starting line-up after recovering from a shin injury, carelessly ran into an offside position as he attempted to get on the end of Evra’s 14th-minute cross to the near post.
But Moyes’ men were astonishingly fragile at the back, where Jones in particular was found wanting on more than one occasion, and the Black Cats could have gone in at the break with a significantly bigger lead to defend after it.
Gardner made the most of the defender’s indecision to run in on goal once again with nine minutes gone, but with the unmarked Jozy Altidore pleading for a cross, he delayed and Jones managed to recover.
However, it was De Gea who came to the rescue 11 minutes before the break when he somehow managed to claw away Giaccherini’s goal-bound header with a save of genuine quality.
Keiren Westwood was called upon to beat away Nani’s 41st-minute shot, but Giaccherini might have doubled Sunderland’s lead in the final minute of the first half when he was presented with another golden opportunity by Adam Johnson’s run through a porous United defence, only to sky his effort high over the bar.
United’s desperation was summed up within three minutes of the restart when Januzaj collapsed in a heap as he went past John O’Shea inside the penalty area and was promptly booked for diving.
But the Belgian was not to be denied and his industry paid off seven minutes later when he played the ball out to Evra on the left and then worked his way into the penalty area to meet the Frenchman’s cross with an assured finish.
Westwood had to get down well to keep out a 58th-minute Robin van Persie snapshot, but he was powerless to prevent United taking the lead three minutes later.
O’Shea got his head to Nani’s right-wing cross and the ball dropped nicely for Januzaj, who gleefully dispatched it into the bottom corner with a sweet left-foot volley.
Van Persie should have made sure at the death after being played in by substitute Antonio Valencia, put prodded his effort wide.