Jose Mourinho’s men strolled to victory at a sun-drenched Stadium of Light, a 28th goal of the season from their unassuming Swede helping to stretch their unbeaten run to 21 games to leave the Black Cats 10 points adrift of safety, their hopes of a fifth consecutive great escape all but extinct.
“My game is getting better and better,” Ibrahimovic reflected afterwards, in typically under-stated style.
Likening himself to the fictional character who ages in reverse, the 35-year-old added: “I train hard, I keep focusing, I believe in what I do and I know what I am able to do. It seems like the older I get the more intelligent I get because of course I can’t move the same as five, 10 years ago.
"You don’t waste as much energy on stuff you don’t really need, so my game is getting better. I feel like Benjamin Button. I was born old and I will die young.”
In terms of dying, Sunderland’s 10-year stay in the Premier League is set to expire without so much as a whimper. They weren’t helped by an awful decision from referee Craig Pawson to brandish a straight red card to Seb Larsson, who won the ball in a challenge with Ander Herrera on the stroke of half-time.
It was the Sweden international’s first sending off in more than 400 career appearances and Sunderland are set to appeal. Clearly, he isn’t that type of player, as the saying goes.
A task which looked mountainous with 11 men proved impossible with 10. The visitors simply hoarded possession, enjoying 70 per cent of the ball 70 per cent of the ball, and left the Black Cats chasing shadows as the hosts’ goal drought stretched beyond 11 hours, their worst in the top flight for 35 years.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, with a ninth goal of the season, doubled the advantage 46 seconds after the restart with a clinical angled drive after a Sunderland player failed to touch the ball following the restart, as Mourinho’s side leap-frogged Arsenal into fifth, although the Gunners have the chance to go back above them with victory against Crystal Palace on Monday.
The Old Trafford club trail fourth-place Manchester City by four points, albeit with a game in hand in addition to facing their local rivals at the Etihad Stadium at the end of the month.
Along with their quest to qualify for Europe’s top club competition through the league, United face the Belgians Anderlecht this week in the last eight of the Europa League, a competition which guarantees a Champions League place to the eventual winners.
“We’re still fighting for a good finish in the Premier League,” Mourinho insisted.
“But the Europa League has become a fundamental competition for us which we can win now. We’re still there trying to apply pressure and fighting for our a good Premier League finish though.”
Ibrahimovic broke the deadlock with a goal which was simple in its construction on the half hour, taking a pass from Herrera on the edge of the Sunderland area, and easily held off ineffective challenges from Billy Jones and Lamine Kone before turning to fire into the bottom corner past Jordan Pickford, who had had already saved well from Jesse Lingard, while only a brave block from Bryan Oviedo prevented Marouane Fellaini from stretching the visitors’ lead soon after following Herrera’s inviting cut-back.
Paul Pogba twice came close to embellishing the margin of victory before Rashford actually did, with a first league goal since September.
The teenager put a more realistic slant on the final score a minute from the end as Sunderland were stretched to breaking-point by a swift counter attack which ended with the England forward swapping passes with Ibrahimovic before finding the bottom corner with a confident finish.
Moyes, who will today respond to the Football Association after being asked for his observation after his threat to slap a BBC reporter, was asked if his side was resigned to its fate. “Only when it’s mathematical, if that happens,” he said. “Otherwise we keep going. We’ve been in poor positions before up here so we’ll see if we can get out of the poor position.”
Pickford 6; Jones 4, Koné 3, Denayer 5, Oviedo 5 (Manquillo 39, 4); Cattermole 6 (Borini 66, 5), Ndong 6, Rodwell 3, Larsson 3; Defoe 4, Anichebe 4.
Mannone, Djilobodji, Khazri, Pienaar, Gibson.
Romero 7; Darmian 7, Bailly 7, Rojo 7, Shaw 7 (Blind 61min, 6); Fellaini 6, Herrera 8, Pogba 6; Lingard 6 (Rashford 64, 7), Ibrahimovic 8, Mkhitaryan 9 (Martial 78, 5).
Carrick, Fosu-Mensah, Tuanzebe, Pereira.