For Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 2016 has been a momentous year: four trophies won with Paris Saint-Germain, a personal total of 50 goals, and a demonstration that, even at the age of 35, he can still live at the top level.
Jose Mourinho, Manchester United’s manager, has made clear that there will be more to come in 2017. Ibrahimovic, who signed a one-year contract with the option for a 12-month extension when he arrived at Old Trafford, will be staying on next season.
“Not yet,” said Mourinho when asked if that option to keep the former Sweden forward had already been activated.
“But it is activated in his brain and it is activated also in my decisions and in those of the owners and the board. So it is no problem.”
A smartly-taken goal against Sunderland took his total for his new club to 17, extended United’s unbeaten run in all competitions to 11 matches, and secured a fourth consecutive Premier League victory. Mourinho’s side remain adrift of the top four, and are nowhere near runaway leaders Chelsea, but the mood at Old Trafford is significantly brighter than it was this time 12 months ago.
That is despite the fact that their league position of sixth is no better now than it was on Boxing Day 2015, when an embarrassing 2-0 defeat at Stoke left Louis van Gaal facing the sack. Van Gaal, as it turned out, held on until May, winning the FA Cup in the process, before the axe fell and Mourinho moved in.
The difference now is that United were on the descent then; now it feels as if they are on the rise.
Another difference, perhaps, is that expectations are a little lower at Old Trafford these days. Qualification for the Champions League, after the difficulties of the last few years, is seen as success now. That is something that has not escaped the attention of David Moyes.
It was Moyes who was handed the onerous task of stepping in to the manager’s job at Old Trafford when Sir Alex Ferguson’s trophy-laden 26-and-a-half years ended with retirement, and United’s last Premier League title, in 2013.
A mere 10 months later, Moyes had been sacked, with the club languishing in seventh. The road back to English top-flight management has been a difficult one; Sunderland was a far from attractive proposition when he arrived at the Stadium Of Light in the summer. For the first time in a management career stretching over almost two decades, Moyes is embroiled in a relegation fight.
This was Moyes’ first return to Old Trafford for a competitive fixture since his dismissal. His new club made a decent fist of it for 80 minutes, but were let down by a tendency to give the ball away too easily.
United had plenty of early chances but the breakthrough came when Ibrahimovic’s deft lay-off set up Daley Blind to drill in his first league goal since September 2015, shortly before half-time.
“Up until 1-0 we always had a good chance to get something out of the game but we gave away a dreadful second goal and the third was offside,” Moyes said.
United, despite dominating in terms of possession and chances created, looked uneasy with a 1-0 lead. When Pickford denied Ibrahimovic with his feet in the game’s final quarter, it began to look as though one would have to be enough.
Then Sunderland self-destructed with eight minutes left, as sloppy play on the halfway line allowed Pogba to play in Ibrahimovic for the cool, slotted finish he has been producing throughout his career. A third goal, soon afterwards, should not have stood; Henrikh Mkhitaryan, on as a substitute, scored with an outrageous backheeled volley from an Ibrahimovic cross while standing offside. There was still time for a specular consolation goal from Borini, looped in from 25 yards.
United’s win came without Wayne Rooney, left out of the squad after suffering a thigh injury in training. Mourinho suggested he would be reluctant to risk him against Middlesbrough on Saturday.
Moyes’ doubts about Sunderland’s Premier League future, voiced loudly in the season’s opening weeks, appear to be receding despite defeat.
“We are going to have to try to galvanise from within,” he said. “It is not a situation I am necessarily used to but some of the players are used to it here. I hope together we can be strong enough in the games that really matter.”
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-1-4-1):
De Gea 7; Valencia 7, Jones 6, Rojo 6, Blind 7; Carrick 7; Mata 7 (Martial 74, 7), Herrera 6 (Fellaini 84), Pogba 7, Lingard 6 (Mkhitaryan 62, 8); Ibrahimovic 8.
Subs not used:
Romero, Darmian, Smalling, Rashford.
Pickford 8; Jones 7, Kone 6, Djilobodji 6, Van Aanholt 7; N’Dong 6 (Love 86); Anichebe 6, Denayer 6, Larsson 6 (Khazri 83), Borini 7; Defoe 6.
Subs not used:
Mannone, O’Shea, Asoro, Honeyman, Embleton.
Martin Atkinson (6)
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