Henrikh Mkhitaryan the heel deal in United triumph
Manchester Utd 3 Sunderland 1
The show was stolen by Henrikh Mkhitaryan, that graceful, enigmatic footballer who has the grave demeanour of a man with something on his mind, and conspired to score the kind of goal you could imagine Denis Law or Mark Hughes once delighting Old Trafford with.
First of all - yes, he was offside, and if it had been the game's deciding moment then there would need to be a different discussion, but this was United's third and it was a beautiful adornment to a hard-fought win that was only decided in the last 10 minutes. On as a substitute, Mkhitaryan dived to reach the ball and was forced to improvise with his heel when the flight of the cross took it behind him.
The substitute clipped the ball past Jordan Pickford and although it was not the final goal of the match, it was the moment the crowd will have remembered best. On his return to Old Trafford, David Moyes's team did their manager great credit for long periods but in the end they were just not good enough.
It must be painful for the former United manager when he watches a well-organised, solid performance undermined by the kind of howler committed by Didier N'Dong to let Paul Pogba in to create the decisive second goal for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. For nine brief months, Moyes had the empire of United at his disposal and now he is back to dealing with the sort of footballers who come from outside the elite.
It was December 2013 that Moyes enjoyed the best run of his time at United, encompassing four straight league wins, and this month too is Mourinho's first winning run of the same length in the Premier League. The problem for the current United manager is that his former club Chelsea just keep on winning, although he was explicit that the 13-point gap to the leaders is not a concern to him currently, "I don't care," he said. "I care about the way we play and the results."
That said, he was not happy with the first-half performance when Sunderland passed the ball as well as United, and created some chances of their own.
To give Moyes his due, you can see why he believes he can keep Sunderland in the Premier League by the skin of their teeth: there was something about them that suggests they might just have enough to do it again.
The Sunderland manager has his team well organised and while the defensive pairing of Lamine Kone and Papy Djilobodji can be erratic, there is the making of a decent partnership. Moyes's influence is evident in the way that Sunderland pass the ball and they had even forced a couple of saves from David De Gea before Daley Blind swept in the first of United's goals after 39 minutes.
That goal was assisted by Ibrahimovic, who had another good afternoon, taking his own tally to 17 in all competitions, which was the season's total from United's top goalscorer last time around, Anthony Martial.
Mourinho said that Wayne Rooney was missing with a muscle injury and that he did not expect the club captain to be back in time for the game against Middlesbrough on New Year's Eve. Martial was a late substitute and Marcus Rashford never got off the bench.
In central defence there was a fine performance from the two stand-ins, Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones, the latter of whom just narrowly edged it as United's most influential player. He did the simple things well and when he had to, he did enough to ensure master predator Jermain Defoe did not score.
Sunderland's only goal came when they were already three down and the match lost but what a beauty it was from Fabio Borini who sent a dipping volley over De Gea's head in a way that so few do. The United goalkeeper had barely a thing to do having stopped two in quick succession in the first half during Sunderland's best period of pressure.
Sunderland rode their luck at times with Kone and Djilobodji stretching the boundaries of what Martin Atkinson was prepared to accept. When Juan Mata was floored by Kone, as both went in pursuit of Antonio Valencia's chipped ball into the area, the referee saw nothing wrong with the challenge.
United got into the swing of it later in the first half and scored after a driving run forward from Rojo, who got the ball to Ibrahimovic. He spotted Blind coming up from the back with the time and space to sweep his shot past Pickford.
United had a better control of the game after the break although it was not until the 86th minute when N'Dong's indifferent afternoon ended with a mistake that let in Pogba. He slipped the ball to Ibrahimovic who drew Pickford and scored. "A dreadful goal," Moyes said, and from then on Sunderland knew the game was over and Mourinho could relax.
Next came Mkhitaryan's moment, the midfielder back from injury and scoring his third goal in his last three games. Borini's volley made it 3-1 and Moyes could reflect on a decent performance. There was no overt hostility towards him from the home support. It is an era in their history United would rather forget and one hopes that, for his sake, some day soon it will not be foremost on Moyes's mind either. (© Daily Telegraph, London)