Manchester United’s growing confidence and momentum were enhanced further on Boxing Day as Sunderland were dismantled in a fourth successive Premier League victory for Jose Mourinho’s men.
Daley Blind, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored the goals to secure the comfortable 3-1 win, while also extending the Reds’ unbeaten run in all competitions to 11 matches. Bigger challenges will come, of course, but there is no doubt that United are capable of climbing the table.
Mourinho had eight days to prepare for the game and duly made two changes to his starting XI, yet one was forced on him after Wayne Rooney reported an injury when training on Christmas Day. Juan Mata replaced the captain and it was his looping cross which led to an early shot from Michael Carrick, whose volley from the edge of the penalty area went wide via a deflection off Ander Herrera.
Sunderland, managed by the returning former Reds boss David Moyes, could have taken a shock lead on 18 minutes when Jermain Defoe met a punt from his goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to lash a shot just wide. Patrick van Aanholt then forced an excellent save out of David De Gea with his 20-yard free-kick, before United were denied a penalty when Mata was barged to the ground by Lamine Kone.
Paul Pogba went close to breaking the deadlock on 27 minutes when a slick one-two with Jesse Lingard on the edge of Sunderland’s box led to his deflected shot rebounding off the post. De Gea then did well to thwart two quick-fire efforts from Victor Anichebe and Fabio Borini, with the latter soon stinging the Spaniard’s palms once again with a deflected long-range effort moments after.
After Pogba had registered two more shots at goal, United secured a vital breakthrough on 39 minutes courtesy of recalled left-back Blind, who controlled Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s pass with his right foot and finished with his left to put the Reds in front six minutes before the half-time break.
STATS AT HALF-TIME
Possession: United 66% Sunderland 34%
Total shots: United 11 Sunderland 6
Shots on target: United 3 Sunderland 3
Corners: United 3 Sunderland 2
The Reds began the second half with the look of a team that had been instructed to find a second goal and Pogba, so impressive in his all-round midfield play, almost did so with a header that flew over on 49 minutes, before fellow summer signing Ibrahimovic blasted over when put through by Mata.
Mkhitaryan made a welcome return from the ankle injury sustained in the win over Tottenham Hotspur when he replaced Jesse Lingard, and the increasingly popular Armenian was immediately involved when he unleashed a right-footed shot that flew wide from the edge of the area, prompting a warm ovation from the appreciative United fans inside a freezing cold Old Trafford.
Ibrahimovic had a low shot saved by the foot of Pickford on 65 minutes and the Swede cut a frustrated figure following his missesd opportunity, yet the 35-year-old displayed his fighting spirit throughout the second half and was finally rewarded on 83 minutes. He latched onto Pogba’s pass and dispatched a cool finish into the bottom corner to tally his 11th goal in 10 appearances across all competitions.
Mkhitaryan claimed United’s third strike of the afternoon – and his third for the Reds so far – with a stunning backheel from Ibrahimovic’s cross that must already be among the front-runners for the club’s Goal of the Season award. Ex-Liverpool forward Borini volleyed in a fine consolation effort for the relegation-threatened Black Cats but it could barely affect United’s buoyant mood on a brilliant Boxing Day.
STATS AT FULL-TIME
Possession: United 63% Sunderland 37%
Total shots: United 25 Sunderland 7
Shots on target: United 9 Sunderland 4
Corners: United 5 Sunderland 5
United: De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Blind; Carrick, Herrera (Fellaini 84), Pogba; Mata (Martial 74), Lingard, (Mkhitaryan 61), Ibrahimovic.
Subs not used: Romero, Darmian, Smalling, Rashford.
Sunderland: Pickford, Jones, van Aanholt, Djilobodji, Kone, Denayer, N’Dong (Love 86), Borini, Larsson (Khazri 83), Anichebe, Defoe.
Subs not used: Mannone, Asoro, O’Shea, Embleton, Honeyman.
Booked: Borini, Kone.