Wayne Rooney's 20th-minute header raised hopes that United could win their 20th top-flight championship, before City incredibly scored twice in stoppage time to beat Queens Park Rangers 3-2 and win their first league title since 1968.
United knew that, barring an avalanche of goals, their destiny was out of their hands, and the unlikelihood of scoring at least nine was reflected in a conservative team selection from Sir Alex Ferguson.
With Danny Welbeck out injured, Wayne Rooney played on his own up front ahead of three attacking midfielders, Ashley Young, Ryan Giggs and Antonio Valencia.
Sunderland's starting XI featured three United old boys - John O'Shea, Phil Bardsley and Fraizer Campbell - with another, Wes Brown, out with a knee injury.
The visitors started positively, passing the ball around in an assured manner they could not muster in recent trips to Wigan and Manchester City.
Neat, Barcelona-style triangles mixed with purposeful raids down the flank from Valencia and Young, while Phil Jones headed an early Giggs corner over.
Jones assisted the opening goal, though his contribution was equalled, if not surpassed, by some terrible Sunderland defending.
Nobody closed Jones down as he delivered a diagonal cross from the right, then Titus Bramble and Michael Turner both let the ball bounce as it made its way to Rooney at the far post, and the England striker converted from close range.
United looked to press home their advantage, and Giggs tested Simon Mignolet with a powerfully-struck shot with the outside of his boot, before Rooney clipped the top of the bar with a free-kick.
Having already netted his 34th goal of the season, Rooney looked certain to make it 35 when Ashley Young redirected a Valencia cross towards him just yards out.
Yet Rooney's attempt to side-foot the ball into the corner barely made contact, and sent it apologetically wide.
Sixty seconds later, Sunderland almost made him pay when Stephane Sessegnon lifted the ball craftily through for Campbell, who had time but chose a rushed volley and failed to hit the target.
United started the second half strongly with some beautiful interplay between Rooney, Giggs and Young. One combination resulted in a chance for Rooney at the edge of the box, but Mignolet stayed strong to repel his shot.
But Sunderland responded with a push of their own, as they had a penalty shout turned down, before Bardsley had a shot blocked.
United continued to squander chances, however. Young had a volley blocked, before Scholes hit the post and Giggs saw the follow-up saved brilliantly by Mignolet.
Sir Alex Ferguson's side saw the final minutes out comfortably, and their fans celebrated the final whistle, knowing only a miracle at Eastlands could deny them their 20th league title.
Incredibly, City's prayers were answers and United were left devastated. As a great manager once said: Football, bloody hell.