Wayne Rooney scored twice to end his eight-match Premier League goal drought as Manchester United beat 10-man Sunderland to move up to third at Old Trafford.
But the game will be remembered for Roger East’s erroneous dismissal of Wes Brown in the incident which led to United finally finding the breakthrough.
Radamel Falcao was fouled by John O’Shea inside the box, but having made the right call to award the spot-kick, East inexplicably sent off the wrong man.
Rooney added a second with a close-range header, marking a welcome return to winning ways for Louis van Gaal’s side following last week’s defeat to Swansea.
In a bright opening, it was the England forward who flashed an early warning sign, freeing himself from Lee Cattermole in the box only to direct his header wide at the near post.
Sunderland were next to have a go. Angel Di Maria was dispossessed by Patrick van Aanholt and when Connor Wickham ran 40 yards fully unopposed, only the sharp instincts of David De Gea low down to his left kept out the striker’s shot.
It was United’s turn to attack. Di Maria’s cross was taken off the toes of Marcos Rojo by Anthony Reveillere and when Ashley Young pounced on Cattermole’s slack clearance, he could only blaze his shot inches over the bar when well set.
Back down the other end, Jermain Defoe was next to try his luck from the edge of United’s penalty area, pushing the ball out of his feet, as is his trademark, before shooting powerfully into the arms of De Gea.
Following the frantic start, it was the home side who took control. Antonio Valencia’s deep cross was taken down by Young, who this time shot low but was denied unbelievably by the sliding O’Shea, with the ball rebounding off the defender onto the woodwork.
Van Gaal has been heavily criticised for his style of play during a relatively successful run of form which was brought to an end at Swansea. This was the Dutchman’s response. Young was by far the busiest of United’s attacking prongs, cutting in from the left to stroke another shot narrowly wide of Costel Pantilimon’s left-hand post.
Goalless at the interval, van Gaal sought to find a breakthrough with the introduction of Adnan Januzaj upon the restart for the disappointing Di Maria, and it was United who continued to pose the greater threat.
The hitherto anonymous Falcao failed to connect properly with Chris Smalling’s cross, with Rojo lifting the loose ball into the increasingly exasperated Stretford End.
It wasn’t until the hour-mark that the hosts threatened again, Rooney’s set-play breaking free to Januzaj on the edge of the box, whose left-foot shot fizzed wide once more.
Then came the moment of controversy. East was correct in his decision to award the penalty. He was right to call it a red card. But he picked the wrong man, deeming Brown to have caused the offense when it was O’Shea who pulled on Falcao’s shirt.
The Colombian fell at the feet of Brown as he tumbled, but it is the latest blunder in a catalogue of refereeing gaffes to have trended this season. Rooney dispatched the resulting penalty low to his left beyond the fingertips of Pantilimon.
East’s error took the spotlight off Falcao’s mesmeric touch and turn that drew the foul, and it was the striker’s last involvement, as van Gaal had already made the decision to replace him with Marouane Fellaini.
It was Rooney’s 100th home Premier League goal (93 at Old Trafford), and his 101st came with six minutes remaining, as Sunderland’s resistance faded down the tunnel with the unfortunate Brown.
Januzaj cut in from the right, and when the substitute’s shot was parried by Pantilimon, Rooney was on hand to head in the rebound.
Fellaini ought to have provided a third in added time, firing at Pantilimon’s legs with Ander Herrera’s effort ruled offside after Valencia blasted the ricochet back towards goal.
This time, the officials made the right decision, but the damage to their reputation had already been inflicted.
Man United: De Gea, Valencia, Smalling, Evans, Rojo, Blind, Herrera, Young, Di Maria (Januzaj 45), Rooney (Mata 86), Falcao (Fellaini 68)
Sunderland: Pantilimon, Reveillere, van Aanholt, Brown, O’Shea (c), Cattermole, Larsson, Gomez, Johnson (Fletcher 81), Wickham (Vergini 67), Defoe (Graham 67).