If Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the self-proclaimed Benjamin Button of football then Sunderland appear tired, old and in terminal decline. They are sleep-walking to relegation, unable to summon up a fight, which makes the red card they suffered here for a tackle deemed violent all the more ironic.
Referee Craig Pawson’s dismissal of Sebastian Larsson for the first time in the midfielder’s career seemed harsh but it did not really affect the result. The Sunderland manager, David Moyes, later claimed his team were in the game up until that moment – what else could he say? – but the outcome was never in doubt after Ibrahimovic scored in the 30th minute. Or, in truth, even before that. It was that easy for Manchester United.
The goal, remarkably, was the 35-year-old’s 250th for club and country in 307 games since he turned 30, compared to 232 goals in the 529 matches he played up until that age .
Last week Ibrahimovic said he was a lion – if so then Sunderland, the Black Cats, were pussycats – and after this encounter, he was likening himself to the character from the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, turned into a Hollywood film starring Brad Pitt, who reverses the ageing process.
“I just play my game, I try to enjoy and it seems that the older I get, the more intelligent I get,” he said. “But the game is improving, I am getting better and better and like I said, I feel like Benjamin Button – I was born old and I will die young.”
Rarely will United win so easily. Manager Jose Mourinho conceded that if they had not taken the points their chances of finishing in the Premier League top four would have been all but over but the pursuit continues as they edge back up into fifth place. The more realistic route remains winning the Europa League and as much as Mourinho lamented his team’s lengthy injury list, he was also able to rest and rotate ahead of Thursday’s quarter-final first-leg away to Anderlecht.
David De Gea was out, with a minor problem from which he is expected to return for Sunday’s home match against Chelsea. Mourinho started with Luke Shaw before withdrawing him, fearing he might be sent off having collected a booking, and there was also the boon of Marcus Rashford’s first league goal since September.
The only positive aspect of the match for Sunderland was the return of Victor Anichebe, who went closest to scoring for them when he turned sharply and shot, only for De Gea’s able replacement, Sergio Romero, to deflect the effort wide for a corner. Sunderland have now gone over 11 hours without a goal, having not scored in the seven matches since their mid-season bonding trip to New York. So many of their players are going through the motions.
The nature of all three of United’s goals highlighted that there is also no bite or drive in Sunderland’s midfield. The banks of empty seats, on a sunbathed afternoon, suggested that many Sunderland fans have made up their minds about the club’s relegation plight. “Keep the faith,” reads a slogan above the players tunnel. That faith can be kept only for so long.
Moyes will today deliver to the Football Association his explanation for his stupid comments to a woman reporter after she, rightly, asked him if, given the team’s situation, he was concerned that Sunderland owner Ellis Short had attended a recent home game. Short was here for this one and will know that he is preparing for life as the owner of a Championship club unless he sells up quickly. That option is probably best for all concerned.
The analysis of United’s opening goal said it all. Ander Herrera rolled a simple enough pass into Ibrahimovic’s feet but Billy Jones stood off him and Lamine Koné allowed himself to be used as a screen as the striker moved inside to curl in a fierce right-foot shot that gave goalkeeper Jordan Pickford no chance. The shockingly weak defending allowed Ibrahimovic to claim his 17th league goal of the season and 28th overall.
If that was deflating for Sunderland, whatever air was left in their system was sucked out just before half-time as Larsson stretched to win the ball ahead of Herrera but also caught the midfielder with his raised right boot. His other leg stayed on the turf but Pawson deemed it worthy of a red card. Larsson was incredulous, arguing with the referee and fourth official Mike Jones.
Moyes, perhaps mindful of the trouble he is in already with the FA, worded his response to the decision carefully but that he disagreed with it was clear and probably justifiably so.
With 10 men, Sunderland’s task was even more formidable. And yet was there the will required in a must-win game? Or the desire to defy the odds, to channel rage against a sense of injustice to a positive end?
No, instead they capitulated just 45 seconds into the second half. United kicked off, stroked the ball around and 15 passes later Shaw had found Henrikh Mkhitaryan inside the Sunderland penalty area again. Once more Koné did nothing. He put no pressure on the ball and did not jockey his opponent, allowing Mkhitaryan the time and space to shoot low between the defender’s legs and beyond Pickford.
The final goal was similarly straightforward as, close to the end, United broke, with Ibrahimovic and Rashford combining down the right before the substitute drilled a low, first-time shot back across Pickford to make the scoreline as emphatic as Sunderland looked aged and anaemic.
Couldn't have been simpler for United, they hardly had to get out of third gear. The sending off of Larsson made a tough task into an impossible one for Sunderland. They're now ten points behind Hull in 17th and it looks to be all over bar the questionable remarks to female reporters.
Match report coming up.
Zlatan: "I couldn't see if the red card was a red card.
How does he keep doing it? He has scored 250 goals since turning 30. "I am like Benjamin Button. I was born old I will die young."
Full time: Sunderland 0 Manchester United 3
That's the end of that. Sunderland are going down, I am quite certain.
Here's our how and why piece...
How did Manchester United cruise past Sunderland and why does Luke Shaw still look vulnerable?
This was precisely what Manchester United wanted ahead of their Europa League trip to Anderlecht, albeit against a Sunderland team that will almost certainly be playing in the Championship in August.
You will not get more pleasant spring weather in the North East and it was a comfortable afternoon all round for United, who maintained their excellent away form, as well as an interest in a top four finish with a degree of ease that undermined our claim to have the world’s most competitive league.
Sunderland tried their best – as they generally have done - but this was typical of their season. They can look a decent, tidy team, but as soon as they concede, they never look like getting back into it and have now gone more than 10 hours without a goal. They are surely doomed, ten points adrift at the bottom of the table.
Zlatan had a chance to make it four shortly after when he got a long ball and rounded the keeper. He couldn't find space for a shot himself but could have set up Fellaini. Zlatan didn't pass. I notice that Marouane has a strop. Zlatan gives the ball away.
Damian is booked. Ref really getting his money's worth today.
GOAL! Rashford! United! 0-3
A nice third, clever and pacy link-up play from Rashford and Ibra. Cute reverse pass from Zlatan plays in young Rashford, he gallops onto it and drills home. That's three, and that's the end of that.
Nice Jess-ture from Lingard.
Chance! Good play Sunderland. Anichebe and Defoe linking up well, the former crosses but the latter cannot knock it in from close range.
Pogba goes close with a freekick. Sunderland fans beginning to leave the stadium, and why wouldn't they? This is one Sunderland leave vote that I find entirely relatable.
Fusspot ref Craig Pawson has booked Martial for following in on Pickford.
Absolutely magnificent bit of control by Manquillo here. He is running full tilt, he receives a long ball, controls it in the air with the an outstretched boot, allowing him to slide in between two defenders. Cannot find a shot to match, but still.
Skipper Fellaini showing all the smarts and leadership we have come to expect as he gets a stupid booking for kicking the ball away. Maddening.
United enjoying a very pleasant Sunday afternoon. Mourinho can afford to take Mkhitaryan off and give Martial a run-out. Tony into the action right away, cracking a shot at goal.
Should have been three! Sunderland have over-committed, United have a break two-on-one. But Zlatan, of all people, fluffs the pass to Rashford.
Moyes removes Cattermole, introduces Borini.
A whole 34 passes in the second half for Sunderland - and we've only played 67 minutes.
Ref getting the cards out again. This time it is for Lingard after he fouls Manquillo. Lingard manages to somehow get himself kicked in the head and lies on the floor for a bit, either in pain or hoping that he won't get the yellow.
Ref waits patiently for the medical treatment to be completed, then shows the yellow card. Always enjoyable.
An eventful few moments for Lingard, he's then promptly subbed off. Rashford on.
Shaw is going off. Oh dear. Daley Blind replaces him.
Rihanna knows it. Best back-up keeper since Cudicini. https://t.co/W93I0oABtv— Sean Fitzsimons (@seand_f) April 9, 2017
Time on ball (44 - 59 min)
Not a lot to report since the goal. United well on top. Luke Shaw has turned his ankle.
Sunderland have a freekick. Defoe hits it. Routine save for No Mug.
Mixed afternoon for these Swedish fans
Rare bit of bottle from Sunderland as Pickford sees an onrushing Zlatan and rushes out to deny him, absolutely mullering the Swedish egomaniac in the process. Zlatan, to his credit, takes it like a man.
you have to take your fun where you can as a sunderland supporter
50' Ibrahimovic charged down by Pickford as denies United a third. The thunderous challenge got a standing ovation from the home fans— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) April 9, 2017
GOAL! Sunderland 0 Man United 2
Oh dear. Oh Moyes. Not much of a team talk, was it?
Just dreadful from Sunderland. Their defence still finishing off the half-time sandwiches and stubbing out a John Player Special as they drag their weary bodies into action, muttering about management and thinking about their holidays.
Metal Mikhi is allowed to pick the ball up, drive forward from the left. Lee Catterface trailing in his wake. Sunderland back four all at walking pace. A half-hearted tackle comes in from Kone, Mkhitaryan skips round that and fires home. 46 seconds.
Players are back out
Just ten of them for the home side. United to kick off.
Reactions to the sending off
Seb Larsson sent off for challenge on Herrera, it wasn't even a free-kick, never mind a red card.— Craig Hope (@CraigHope_DM) April 9, 2017
Seb Larsson getting sent off makes nee difference, we look like we're playing with 10 men when he's on the pitch anyway— Jonny Smith (@OrwiteTreacle) April 9, 2017
Steve Harper on the BBC: "It's the height of his foot. Seb Larsson gets the ball but it's the follow through that the referee has deemed dangerous. If there's such a thing as an orange card it's probably in there."
Jamie Redknapp: "Larsson has got a little bit of previous but I don't think it should be a red card. The ref has seen that right leg extend as he follows through the tackle."
Phil Neville: "If there's a horendous tackle United players surround the referee but they didn't. I think it should have been only a yellow."
Sunderland 0 Manchester United 1
Slightly unlucky red card but I think the ref was reacting to the fact that Larsson had just tried a similar studs-up challenge on Pogba a half a second earlier before he fouled Herrera. Shame for Sunderland, who had done well enough to keep in the game despite a brilliant individual goal form Zlatan.
That's the end of the half. Defoe is over having a word with the ref. Sunderland fans making their feelings felt.
Average touch positions (half time)
Time on ball (first half)
Man Utd taking the game to the hosts
With ten shots - and five on target - Man Utd are looking dangerous so far.
Red card! Sebastian Larsson sent off for Sunderland
Referee Craig Pawson gives Sebastian Larsson his marching orders.
Red Card for Sebastian Larsson!!
Larsson tries to tackle Pogba with his studs up. Misses. Literally half a second later, he tries to tackle another United player, this time Herrera, again with his studs up.
Referee Pawson doesn't like that one bit, and he sends him off. Larsson can't believe it. He argues with the ref.
Moyes looks defeated on the bench.
Eventually Larsson is persuaded off the pitch. So he starts getting into it with the fourth official.
Niall Quinn: "that was a miscarriage of justice." Mate, it's not the Birmingham Six. It's just a red card that could maybe arguably have been a yellow. But was probably a fair red.
But out of nowhere, Sunderland have a great chance! Some really good play by Anichebe, and a really good save by No Mug Romero in nets.
The ball was played in, Big Vic controlled, held off the defender Bailly, controlled and shot. Bailly was well beaten in that duel and was reduced to flailing out a leg that might have brought his opponent down. It might even have made contact with the ankle, on another look.
Shaw, wearing 23
is having a whale of a time. He's really getting forward down that left.
Oviedo has been hurt in a tackled with, I think, Lingard. He's having to come off.
Shaw crosses, Fellaini nearly bundles it in.
Couple of minutes later and Pogba's cracked a shot at the keeper.
That's a marvellous goal from Ibrahimovic. Class act.— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) April 9, 2017
Outstanding goal from Ibrahimovic. Not even vaguely a chance when he received possession. He just so often creates things out of nothing— Michael Cox (@Zonal_Marking) April 9, 2017
That's a marvellous goal from Ibrahimovic. Class act.— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) April 9, 2017
Time on ball (15 - 30 min)
GOAL! United! Zlatan!
0-1! The opening goal goes the way of Man Utd and it's Zlatan Ibrahimovic who scores it.
Oh that is class. Zlatan gets the ball on the edge of the box, he uses his strength to hold off two defenders, he shifts the ball to his right and fires home a wonderful low shot. No chance keeper. That's great, great forward play. Hard lines for Sunderland, who had been getting on terms, but sometimes there is no substitute for individual brilliance.
Lingard, looking United's most likely threat, with an excellent run through the middle. He places a low shot, and keeper Pickford has to dive full length to deny him
Good play Sunderland! Ball chipped through for Defoe, who makes contact... just wide. In fact, he was just offside as well, but it's something.
Lee Catterwaul has had a shot! Straight at the keeper but a shot nevertheless.
A first attempt at goal from Sunderland - Man Utd have had four shots of their own so far.
For many years, the Zlatan Memorial Trophy
Paul Pogba's closing in on Franck Ribery in the 'bloke who's meant to be good but I've literally never seen play well' stakes.— Alex Hess (@A_Hess) April 9, 2017
Pic from just now
A period of pressure for United, Shaw is having a decent game and making strong runs down the left. Defoe has tracked all the way back and gets in an important tackle.
Oviedo has a freekick, wide.
Lee Cattermole floats the ball forward, Defoe stoops to head it, Rojo is penalised for a high boot. Rightly so, he nearly kicked Jermain's ear off.
Not much of a game so far. Crowd whistling furiously, perhaps because they have to watch Sunderland play football every other week. Both sets of players putting in niggly fouls, going down easily (see Herera here) and it's generally a rather poor advert.
Time on ball (0 - 14 min)
Awful tackle from
Jose Mourinho Luke Shaw on Ndong. Wild and nowhere near the ball. Rightly booked.
Here come Sunderland though. They've got a corner. It's not much of a delivery. Easily cleared.
Sunderland cannot get clear. Rojo fouled. The hosts give away a freekick on the edge of their box. Zlatan flips one, it's behind for a corner.
Sunderland cannot get out of their own half.
It's all United. They have got Sunderland under a lot of pressure. Lingard with another effort, that bobbles around in the box.
Lingard is allowed to cut inside from the left, nobody near him, and he has an effort from oustside the area. Regulation for Pickford, but Moyes will be wondering why nobody closed down the hundred grand a week United player.
United, in blue, curtail an attack down their right flank and are soon passing the ball about among themselves.
Oviedo slices through the back of Lingard, giving referee Craig Pawson his first decision to make. Freekick only.
Just the 585 minutes since Sunderland
scored a goal. Not an encouraging stat. So: here we go. Kick off!
No Mug update!
Now Rob Hawthorne is at it! "Sergio Aguero is in goal today, he is no mug."
Here's the Man United side
Here's how Sunderland line up
Players are out on the pitch
nice day there.
I am not sure how long we will get out of Victor Anichebe but he is very important to us and we need goals.
I was saying six months ago that we had to win games. I know that we have to win games.
We have to make sure we get after United.
Congratulations Marouane Fellaini, captaining Manchester United for the first time today. pic.twitter.com/gtG0D2tHKu— Danny Kelly (@dannykellywords) April 9, 2017
Basher Mourinho contemplating whether he should give Luke Shaw an atomic wedgie
Or perhaps just a simple nipple cripple.
"It looks like De Gea has been dropped. I am amazed. Sometimes keepers are crazy but not De Gea, he breaks the mold that way. He is quiet and respectful."
Phil also concedes "Sergio Romero is Argentina's number one, so he is no mug." 87 international caps would seem to back up this assessment.
Skipper and the troops are out on the pitch
Wonder if you can get odds on BOTH captains being sent off?
United will have to do it without their first-choice keeper.
Mourinho: "David (De Gea) has a little problem and is not travelling."— The ManUtd Blog (@the_manutd_blog) April 9, 2017
Can't imagine anything other than a United win here
They've had 18 points from their last ten games, and while their unbeaten run has been described as among history's least impressive, they should surely be too good for Sunderland. Moyesie's mob have lost five of their last six, and have five points from their last ten games.
Manchester United team
Five changes to the side that started against Everton on Tuesday, as Romero, Darmian, Shaw, Pogba and Mkhitaryan all come in. #MUFC— Manchester United (@ManUtd) April 9, 2017
And as for the Super Manchester Reds TM
Fellaini captains Manchester United. More power to his elbow.— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) April 9, 2017
One change for les chats noir
Sunderland team news
Stop what you are doing
And read Big Wrong talking about money here.
This might put your off your Sunday roast mind you
Lee managing to travel ten yards there without kicking anyone though, so it's all encouraging stuff.
Hello! Happy Sunday
Glorious weather here in London, hope it's pleasant wherever you are, and that you are enjoying a restful day. We've already had Lewis winning the F1, there's terrific golf action on later, and some of us are wondering on what to spend our GRAND NATIONAL WINNINGS, having backed One For Arthur. One doesn't like to brag.
Anyway, aside from all that, there's the small matter of Premier League football action. Manchester United travel to Sunderland, and it's a chance for David Moyes to reacquaint himself with some of his former charges.