Manchester United strolled to a comfortable 3-0 win vs an abject Sunderland on a sunny April spring day in Wearside to keep their hopes of finishing in the top 4 alive.
Three goals from three different players (Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan, and Rashford) left United in 5th at the end of the weekend, six points off Liverpool in third with two games in hand, and four points behind Manchester City with a game in hand.
All four of the top four were in action a day before United, and all had racked up three points – it was imperative that United kept in touch with the teams above them.
Possibly with an eye on the next two matches (vs Anderlecht in the Europa League and vs Chelsea in the Premier League), Jose Mourinho decided to rotate his team a bit.
Sergio Romero came into goal, while Matteo Darmian was preferred at right back.
The extra defensive solidity meant Luke Shaw could start at left-back for the first time in over a month.
Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo continued at CB. In the midfield, Pogba and Herrera started alongside captain Marouane Fellaini.
Ibrahimovic started up front with Lingard and Mkhitaryan playing in the wider areas.
Worst in the league
Sunderland, managed by David Moyes, have been comfortably the worst team in the Premier League this season.
However at the beginning of the match, the supporters had hope – United had not won at the Stadium of Light since 2013, and with Defoe/Anichebe up front, anything was possible.
The game kicked off, and United had most of the ball as expected.
Admittedly there were not many chances created, but possession in dangerous areas meant that an early United goal could kill the game off.
Sunderland, whenever they got the ball, looked to hit it up to one of the two strikers as early as possible and let them create something.
With the game starting off quite slow, it dramatically changed on the 30th.
A corner was partially cleared, and Ibrahimovic found himself alone at the edge of the box with Billy Jones.
The Swedish striker used his strength to pin the defender, and received the ball from a first time pass from Ander Herrera.
He then took a touch with the inside of his right boot and created space for the turn and shot.
That shot arrowed into the far corner to give United the lead, and put them on course for three points.
If Sunderland had any hope at this point, it soon nearly became a reality.
Their best chance of the game came late on, when Jones’ cross found Anichebe in the box.
Anichebe did to Darmian what Ibrahimovic had done to Jones, taking a touch and then rolling the defender.
However, the Nigerian turned to his left and tried to clip the ball over Romero but was thwarted by the keeper.
Replays indicated that Anichebe was caught by Eric Bailly as he turned, but the striker kept going as he would have thought he was going to score.
Sunderland also fell down to 10-men, when Sebastian Larsson was sent off just before half time after appearing to lunge at Ander Herrera with studs showing and boot lifted off the ground.
The red card did seem harsh, and it galvanised Sunderland as they went into half-time 1-0 down.
Second after the break
David Moyes’ team-talk was the opposite of the hairdryer though, as Sunderland found themselves 2-0 down within 45 seconds of the restart.
United kicked off and strung a few passes together, and then Luke Shaw spotted Mkhitaryan in the box on his own.
He fizzed a pass toward the Armenian, who took a composed touch and then shot past Pickford into the far corner to make it 2-0.
That resigned Sunderland fans to their fate – they hadn’t seen a goal for over six hours, they were 10 points off 17th place, and now they were down to 10 men.
This meant the game started to peter out with United applying the handbrake, while the fans pressed the accelerator and continued to belt out a full medley of songs at their loudest.
Some ex-United players got their songs aired including Cristiano Ronaldo, Gary Neville, Roy Keane, Eric Cantona, and Diego Forlan – much to Jose Mourinho’s confusion.
As the game drew to its eventual conclusion, Mourinho brought on Blind for Shaw (who was on a yellow card),
Rashford for Lingard, and Martial for Mkhitaryan, on three separate occasions.
One of the subs (Rashford) broke his long league goal drought by scoring in the last minute of added time.
United at 2-0 up were almost complacent – there were plenty of chances to finish the game off once and for all by scoring 3 or 4 – but a combination of poor touches, poor decision making, and bad shooting left it at 2-0.
Icing on the cake
The only icing on this cake that was not applied was a Paul Pogba goal (although he had two excellent opportunities with a volley and a free kick that went wide).
Mourinho was happy with the result, and will have been even happier when he saw the Arsenal result the next day.
This leaves United in 5th on 67 points at the end of the gameweek – but attentions shift to the Europa League as a means of entering next season’s Champions League with a trip to Belgium to face Anderlecht.
- Marouane Fellaini was named Manchester United captain on the basis that he was the club’s longest-serving first team player. This seems like too convenient an excuse to give him the armband, but Mourinho was probably rewarding Fellaini as a player of limited means who has executed his manager’s ambitions to a T. Cynical United fans also believed it was done in response to David Moyes being the opposition manager.
- Luke Shaw had a solid game at left back. One blemish was a late tackle on Didier Ndong that got him a deserved yellow card, otherwise it was a really good performance. Shaw continually demanded the ball in the first half, and drove at the defence. One thing that has been missing from this recent United team was a reliance on hitting the byline and crossing from there, and this is something Shaw thrives on. He was good defensively too with a few key headers over Anichebe with multiple interceptions. United fans will be hoping this is the start of something new with the English LB.
- Sunderland looked doomed. The fans became apathetic as soon as United scored the first goal, and it almost felt as they were resigned to their fate. It has been six and a half hours plus without a goal – they will need a few from Defoe and co if they have any hope of staying up.
- Last note has to be reserved for a special young individual – Bradley Lowery. The five year old has captured hearts across the globe, and there he was walking out with his best friend Jermaine Defoe as the mascot in a poignant scene. Bradley suffers from neuroblastoma (a cancer of the nerves), and is a die hard Sunderland fan who has been a real part of the club this year. His is an emotional story, and thoughts/wishes go out to him as he seeks a cure to the rare disease.
Written by Vishakh Chandrasekhar
Follow Vishakh on Twitter @VishC24
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