Zlatan Ibrahimovic had stated he is a “lion among pussycats” and sure enough Manchester United’s leading light delighted in helping devour David Moyes’s Black Cats as José Mourinho’s players sustained their hopes of a top-four finish.
After the final whistle sounded Ibrahimovic decided he was not really a run-of-the-mill mortal after all, informing an interviewer that he “felt like Benjamin Button” the fictional character who, living life in reverse, became younger rather than older. How Sunderland’s manager must wish he could turn the clock back and erase those unfortunate comments he directed at the BBC’s Vicki Sparks last month. Instead he is contemplating an imminent Football Association sanction while also facing the looming reality of Championship football after this deconstruction by the club who sacked him three years ago.
Ten points adrift of 17th place, the Wearside club’s cause appears increasingly hopeless following 90 minutes in which they created little more than half-chances and were severely hampered by Seb Larsson’s highly controversial sending-off just before half-time.
Whether that red card changed the destination of the three points is doubtful. Sunderland were already losing thanks to Ibrahimovic’s opener on a day when, not for the first time, the Swede’s magnetic presence masked the reality that prolonged parts of United’s overall performance were actually a little stodgy.
Their team-sheet had made interesting reading. There was no David de Gea, who was either slightly injured or dropped depending on whom one believed – Marouane Fellaini was captain, Marcus Rashford initially warmed the bench and Luke Shaw started at left-back.
After being the subject – or should that be victim? – of a distinctly dubious bout of man-management on Mourinho’s part in midweek, Shaw began in such hyper-mode it seemed as if he must have had a caffeine overdose. He always appeared to be on the ball and it smacked of a player desperate to impress, never more so than when he was shown a yellow card for ploughing through the back of the similarly lively Didier Ndong. Across in the dugout Mourinho pulled a face.
Subplots aside, it was a resolutely downbeat opening which seemed somehow out of keeping with the unusually warm Wearside sunshine but perhaps this sluggishness was only to be expected from two sides who have been heavily over-dependent on ageing strikers this season. Just as it is not Jermain Defoe’s fault that Sunderland are floundering so badly, neither is Ibrahimovic to blame for United’s struggles to finish in the top four.
Meeting Ander Herrera’s pass, he emphasised the point by swivelling imperiously and, having turned Billy Jones while simultaneously wrong-footing Lamine Koné, shaping a wonderfully precise shot beyond Jordan Pickford and into the bottom corner.
It was his 28th goal of the season and left Pickford, who had earlier reacted superbly to turn Jesse Lingard’s shot away for a corner, helpless. If one had expected no less from United’s self-styled lion, Defoe was finding the going somewhat tougher. Watched by Gareth Southgate, the recently recalled England striker’s most notable first-half moment involved tracking back and winning a tackle against Shaw.
At half-time Defoe and friends were lucky not to be two down – Fellaini could not quite force Shaw’s fine cross past Pickford – but arguably unfortunate to be reduced to 10 men following Larsson’s sending-off for a slightly high challenge on Herrera as he followed through after a tackle.
Larsson got the ball, many referees would have shown a yellow card and most people in the stadium were outraged by the decision. Conversely the referee would presumably argue that the height of the midfielder’s foot made it potentially dangerous and officials have a responsibility to minimise the risk of injuries similar to that recently suffered by Ireland’s Séamus Coleman.
After initially being reluctant to depart, Larsson gave Mike Jones, the fourth official, an earful as he finally trudged off, leaving Ellis Short, Sunderland’s watching owner, looking extremely pensive.
Barely a minute into the second half Short’s misery deepened when the excellent Henrikh Mkhitaryan received possession on the edge of the penalty area before threading a low, left-foot shot through Koné’s legs and into the bottom corner. Moyes’s players – now without a goal in seven games – had paid for their negligence in failing to close down United.
Shortly afterwards Shaw, who played very well, was withdrawn. Presumably well aware of the cameras zooming in, Mourinho made a big show of intercepting and embracing the young defender as he passed through the technical area. By then Paul Pogba’s volley had skimmed Pickford’s bar and, despite continuing to create the odd half-chance, Sunderland’s shoulders indicated by their slump there would be only one outcome.
It seemed a good moment for Mourinho to introduce Rashford’s pace and improvisation. It was a switch vindicated when, in the 89th minute, the teenager accelerated seamlessly on to Ibrahimovic’s pass and directed a low shot into the bottom corner, his first Premier League goal since September.