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Wayne Rooney ended his eight-game Premier League scoring drought with a brace as Manchester United climbed back above Arsenal into third with a 2-0 victory against a dogged Sunderland on Saturday.
United were booed during stages of another underwhelming first half at Old Trafford but Rooney, restored to his favoured forward position, dispatched a 66th-minute penalty after Radamel Falcao was impeded by John O'Shea.
Fellow former United man Wes Brown was wrongly shown the red card instead of O'Shea despite the remonstrations of Sunderland's players before Rooney added his second with a simple finish in the 84th minute.
"It's great to score but the three points are the most important thing after last week (a 2-1 loss to Swansea City)," Rooney told the BBC.
"We knew Sunderland would be dogged. They defended well, but we were patient. It was a good performance.
"I think there are a lot of teams in a good run of form and there's not much difference between the top teams. We hope that, come the end of the season, we're in the right position."
United's top-four rivals Southampton continued their recent slump after they were beaten 1-0 at improving West Bromwich Albion courtesy of Saido Berahino's early goal.
Earlier Glenn Murray scored twice and was sent off as resurgent Crystal Palace registered a 3-1 Premier League win at a toothless West Ham United to heap more woe on the stuttering east London side, who began the season brightly.
Newcastle United extended Aston Villa's winless Premier League run to 12 games with a 1-0 victory at St James' Park thanks to Papiss Cisse's goal.
Swansea City climbed to eighth after Kieran Trippier's own goal in a 1-0 win at struggling Burnley while Stoke City were 1-0 victors at home against Hull City thanks to a Peter Crouch header.
Not for the first time this season, Manchester United's back three looked vulnerable and were indebted to goalkeeper David de Gea, who tipped Connor Wickham's early shot round the post before the Spaniard denied Jermain Defoe.
A prolonged period of United possession yielded no attacking enterprise and ended with a ball back to De Gea, which was met by widespread boos and groans from a disgruntled Old Trafford crowd.
Moments later Ashley Young's low cross clipped the bar via a sizeable deflection off O'Shea before the United wingback fired a shot narrowly past the far post.
After the break, more sloppy United play was greeted with groans though their side finally opened the scoring when Falcao turned brilliantly to win a penalty after he was impeded by O'Shea.
Referee Roger East mistakenly showed Brown the red card before Rooney calmly converted the penalty.
Adnan Januzaj, a halftime substitute for an anonymous Angel di Maria, made a huge impact following his introduction and his low shot was parried by Costel Pantilimon allowing Rooney to apply a simple finish to secure the points.
Southampton had won one of their previous four league games to slip out of the top four and they found themselves behind after Berahino's excellent strike in the second minute.
The visitors commanded much of the possession but too many of their players cut frustrated figures as they failed to break down a resolute West Brom side.
Morgan Schneiderlin split the hosts' defence with a sublime ball midway through the half but Sadio Mane wasted the opportunity with a wild shot.
West Brom's lively striker Berahino, who has 17 goals in all competitions this season, was substituted with an apparent injury.
Southampton's Graziano Pelle failed to convert a glaring opportunity with the goal beckoning midway through the second period.
Darren Fletcher missed a good chance for the hosts before both Pelle and Eljero Elia wasted good chances for Southampton as West Brom held on to climb eight points clear of the relegation zone with a fourth league game without defeat.
Second-placed champions Manchester City visit Liverpool on Sunday when Arsenal, two points behind United, host Everton. Leaders Chelsea play Tottenham Hotspur in the Capital One Cup final.
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