A first Premier League goal in more than a year from Daley Blind and late strikes from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were enough to give Manchester United a 3-1 victory over Sunderland on Monday.
The Netherlands international struck his first top-flight goal since September 2015 before two more in the final eight minutes secured a fourth league win in a row for the home side and ensure that David Moyes' return to Old Trafford was a disappointing one.
United, who were without captain Wayne Rooney due to a knock sustained in training, have begun to build some momentum under Jose Mourinho, but were sluggish and short on inspiration in a tepid opening half-hour.
Indeed, it was Victor Anichebe who missed the best chance of the half when he mishit a shot from only six yards out, before Blind at last broke the deadlock with an accurate finish.
Jordan Pickford produced a handful of good saves to deny United as some nervousness crept into the home fans in the closing stages, with memories of late goals conceded against Stoke City and Arsenal still fresh in their minds. But the hosts made sure of the win eight minutes from time as Ibrahimovic finally got the better of the Sunderland goalkeeper from close range.
Mkhitaryan's sublime finish capped the victory that moves United to within three points of fourth-placed Manchester City, who face Hull City in the late game on Monday, while Sunderland - who got a consolation through a fantastic Fabio Borini strike - remain in 18th position in the table.
Patrick van Aanholt brought a good save from David de Gea with a well-struck free-kick as Sunderland began to grow in confidence after some early United dominance, though the home side felt they should have had a penalty when Juan Mata was shouldered to the ground by Lamine Kone.
Paul Pogba's curling effort from the edge of the area was deflected onto the outside of Pickford's left-hand post, but Sunderland wasted their best chance of the half when Anichebe scuffed a shot against the leg of De Gea after a defensive mix-up left him in space only six yards from goal.
21 - Zlatan Ibrahimovic registered his first assist in his last 21 league games (since April 2016). Gift.-- OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 26, 2016
Pogba flashed another dipping shot over the crossbar, but United found the breakthrough six minutes before half-time through an unlikely source.
Ibrahimovic collected the ball to the right of the Sunderland area and slid a pass into the run of Blind, who drilled a fine left-footed strike across Pickford's goal and into the bottom corner.
It could have been worse for the visitors before the break but for Pickford, who reacted well to keep out Pogba's clever effort following a good United move before he dived low to his right to parry Mata's free-kick.
United stepped up the pressure after half-time as they looked for a second, with Ibrahimovic's poor pass to Pogba halting one good opportunity before the France international headed narrowly over the crossbar from Antonio Valencia's cross.
Ibrahimovic blasted over from another good opening and the Swede was denied by a superb save from Pickford moments later, as Mourinho introduced Mkhitaryan from the bench for his first appearance since the win over Tottenham on December 11.
The match at last opened up in the closing 20 minutes as Sunderland began to chase an equaliser with earnest, but consistently poor service to Jermain Defoe in attack meant chances were at a premium.
With 82 minutes gone, United at last made certain of the points. Pogba pounced on some loose play from Didier Ndong on the halfway line and sent Ibrahimovic through on goal, where he had the time and space to slot the ball past Pickford.
And four minutes later, Mkhitaryan produced the game's real memorable moment of magic, steering an acrobatic backheel into the corner from 12 yards from an Ibrahimovic cross - although the Armenia star should have been flagged offside.
Borini chested the ball down before volleying past the static De Gea in sublime style in injury time, but there was little else to cheer for the visiting fans, or indeed Moyes.