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Swaggering Manchester United sink Sunderland 3-1
When Tottenham Hotspur take on Southampton on Wednesday, the Premier League season will have passed its halfway point and attention will pivot towards the second-half stretch that defines the title race. The major players have already revealed themselves, with the big six having opened seven full points of separation from the rest of the pack. Chelsea are top, then Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and finally, Manchester United. Given that they have all won so far this weekend, it was vitally important that United leapfrogged into the frontrunners’ group with a dominant three points over Sunderland.
Despite a rocky start to the year, the Red Devils have climbed their way back up the table by way of an eleven match unbeaten streak in all competitions, which dates back nearly two months, and proved that will be fighting for a high position in the second half of the season. It will take many determined victories like Monday’s to reach the top of the table, no doubt, and Jose Mourinho has made calls for his men to maintain a dogged determination and tunnel-vision, only looking towards the next game.
Yet this victory showed that, as dogged and ruthless United’s mentality may be, they still possess the talent to play delightfully entertaining football and control games in stylish fashion. Mourinho’s star-studded midfield wrestled control of the match in the first-half and never looked back after Daley Blind opened the scoring in the thirty-sixth minute. United dominated the second period, patiently poking and prodding Sunderland’s backline until two late goals from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan put the match to bed in the final ten minutes.
Fabio Borini found the back of the net with a tremendous long-range volley in stoppage time, but United’s comfortable lead rendered it a mere consolation goal.
Sunderland had vied for control early on, but United’s superiority was evident right from the opening whistle. Juan Mata forced Jordan Pickford into a smart stop from a curling effort in the opening moments, and Patrick van Aanholt threatened with a stinging free-kick from the edge of the area at the other end. However, David de Gea launched a quick counter-attack that ended in loud calls for a penalty kick as Lamine Koné collided with Mata in the box.
Paul Pogba was United’s largest threat from the middle, curling narrowly wide in the twenty-sixth minute and volleying over ten minutes later. Michael Carrick was a lynchpin in the center of the pitch, allowing Pogba to move freely up front, seamlessly combining with Mata, Ander Herrera, Jesse Lingard and Ibrahimovic. Surprisingly, it was Blind who scored the opener from an incisive move that began as Marcos Rojo carried the ball into the middle and spread the play wide to left Ibrahimovic. Rojo continued his run so as to drag a defender with him, prompting Daley Blind to charge into the open space and collect a neat layoff from Ibrahimovic. The Dutchman controlled the ball with his first touch and instinctively arrowed a quick shot into the bottom corner with his second. Although United had six players in the penalty area at the time of the goal, their shrewd movement and ingenuity kept the box from feeling crowded.
United set out for the second half with renewed vigor, suffocating Sunderland with a high press. Mkhitaryan was introduced to a near instant reward, setting up Ibrahimovic to fire a shot at Pickford, and Pogba also headed over.
Ibra finally found a breakthrough from which he coolly slotted United’s second in the eighty-first minute, and Mkhitaryan put the icing on the cake with a superb finish four minutes later, burying Ibra’s cross into the top corner with a behind-the-back-flick. Indeed, it was such an implausible finish that it reminded of one of Ibrahimovic’s many bicycle kicks or flying karate chops. That United have numerous players not only capable of such an exquisite finish but who have the audacity to attempt it in-game, is what gives the red half of Manchester the potential to make an impact in the next few months. And when their star-studded lineup can find its fluency, they are virtually unstoppable, as Sunderland discovered tonight.
Homepage photo credit: Clément Bucco-Lechat [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons