Saturday 18 November 2017

Feeble Black Cats going down with a whimper

Sunderland 0 Man Utd 3

Daley Blind challenges Jermain Defoe during Manchester United’s victory against Sunderland. Photo: Reuters / Lee Smith
Daley Blind challenges Jermain Defoe during Manchester United’s victory against Sunderland. Photo: Reuters / Lee Smith

Ian Herbert

It was not a win of emphatic proportions for Man United, given that they brought minimal spectacle to the party and were helped substantially on their way by the highly questionable dismissal of Sebastian Larsson in the first-half's closing moments.

However, while the red card provided David Moyes with extenuating circumstances for defeat, there is an overwhelming sense that his side - four points adrift, one point in seven games and not a solitary goal in 675 minutes of league football - have given up the ghost. The boos at the end were muffled and half-hearted, much like the performance.

Sunderland's Jermain Defoe in action with Manchester United's Eric Bailly. Photo: Reuters / Lee Smith
Sunderland's Jermain Defoe in action with Manchester United's Eric Bailly. Photo: Reuters / Lee Smith

It was on the corresponding weekend last season that Sam Allardyce's Black Cats faced the prospective champions Leicester City on the Wearside afternoon when Claudio Ranieri shed tears.

Scrapped

They scrapped to the death that day, even though they were vanquished by Jamie Vardy. The defending initially had some intent on this occasion, with Jason Denayer offering a flicker of light in the darkness, but there was neither the energy nor belief to counter-attack with.

Moyes urged them to break upfield when they had turned possession over - to no avail. It is a mystery how some of the stars of Allardyce's resurrected Sunderland team, like Wahbi Khazri, have fallen out of favour with the manager. This midfield of his was anaemic.

Survival was "still as difficult, probably more difficult, there's no disguising the fact it's difficult", according to Moyes, who must today provide his observations to the FA on his "slap" comments to BBC reporter Vicki Sparks.

Manchester United's Marcus Rashford in action with Sunderland's Didier Ndong. Photo: Reuters / Russell Cheyne
Manchester United's Marcus Rashford in action with Sunderland's Didier Ndong. Photo: Reuters / Russell Cheyne

To his credit, he did not attempt to hide behind the red card.

"I'm not blaming referees. Our position is where we are. We're bottom of the league," he said, and there was no evidence that they would have claimed a point with all 11 men at their disposal.

Moyes' claim that "it's not even a booking" was valid, though. Larsson and Ander Herrera both went for a stray ball in midfield. The Swede made contact with the ball and caught Herrera as he followed through with a boot which was a football's height from the ground.

It was not a reckless challenge, nor one in which Larsson was out of control. The inconsistencies of referee Craig Pawson screamed out thereafter, as Lamine Kone was not even booked for placing his studs on to substitute Marcus Rashford's foot.

Sunderland's Jermain Defoe in action with Manchester United's Daley Blind. Photo: Reuters / Lee Smith
Sunderland's Jermain Defoe in action with Manchester United's Daley Blind. Photo: Reuters / Lee Smith

The dismissal left United, already a goal to the good, to pick off three points. The first-half's single moment of class had already sent them ahead.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic received a Herrera pass, back to goal, and ripped into a pocket of space to his left. With the reactions of full-back Billy Jones and Lamine Kone too slow, he curled a 28th goal of his extraordinary season into the bottom right-hand corner.

The second-half was 46 seconds old when the lead was doubled by Henrikh Mkhitaryan, which said something for Moyes' powers of motivation.

The 28-year-old drifted into the area to receive a ball from Matteo Darmian and sent it through Kone's legs and beyond Jordan Pickford. The goalkeeper might have reacted faster.

Any hope that Moyes' men would be motivated out of a sense of injustice to offer some fight soon evaporated. .

Sunderland's Jermain Defoe in action with Manchester United's Marcos Rojo. Photo: Reuters / Russell Cheyne
Sunderland's Jermain Defoe in action with Manchester United's Marcos Rojo. Photo: Reuters / Russell Cheyne

Mourinho had not exactly demonstrated ambition, either. He fielded a three-man defensive midfield and retained the two players of pace - Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial - on the bench against the division's weakest side.

There are times when his selection seems part of a strategy to minimise United's threat and demonstrate the need for spending this summer. Yet they have leapfrogged Arsenal and if they can damage Chelsea next Sunday, the Manchester derby on April 27 could still be a top four shoot-out.

"If we (didn't) win today it's almost mathematically impossible (to make the top four)," Mourinho said.

His two young forwards did arrive eventually and Rashford finished things up, when an intelligent return pass to him from Ibrahimovic confounded Denayer and allowed the Englishman to send a low shot beyond Pickford.

It was a morgue by the end, from a Sunderland perspective, with swathes of empty seats either vacated by supporters who'd decided there were better ways of spending a warm spring afternoon. (Independent News Service)

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