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Moments of true catharsis have been rare for Manchester United in recent years. Mostly, the post-Sir Alex Ferguson Era has been a struggle. On Saturday, the Red Devils got to finish 2016, another difficult year, on a soaring high, though, with a dramatic 2-1 win over Middlesbrough thanks to Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba goals after the 85th minute.
That made it six wins in a row in all competitions for Jose Mourinho’s United (five straight in the Premier League), suggesting that just maybe the club might be back on track at last, 3½ years after Ferguson retired.
It was hard going against Boro, and United had a right to feel aggrieved by a series of decisions by referee Lee Mason. Usually, when Mourinho complains about referees after the game it sounds a bit paranoid. But he would have had an irrefutable case had United dropped points, as it long looked like it would.
United was totally dominant against the side set up by Aitor Karanka, once Mourinho’s assistant at Real Madrid and a quasi-apprentice. Pogba, the world’s most expensive player, got the first look with a spectacular bicycle kick off the post, but he was offside anyway.
Martial then hit the framework as well, with a rocket of a shot from outside the box.
And that’s when Mason made his most blatant error.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic met a Martial cross and scored with an artistic kung fu kick. He was deemed to have done so too closely to goalkeeper Victor Valdes, however, and the goal was called off for his high boot. Replays showed that Ibrahimovic wasn’t so near to the Spaniard as to endanger him, retreating his foot in time, and if anything, Zlatan got the worse of the ensuing collusion.
It was a referee error that could have been costly for United. Because it would be Middlesbrough stealing the unexpected lead when Grant Leadbitter scored from the Alvaro Negredo setup.
As United cranked up the pressure, it would once again feel robbed by Mason. Substitute Marcus Rashford was denied an obvious penalty when he was wrestled to the ground by Bernardo.
But then Zlatan got his head onto Logan Bailly’s long ball and knocked it into the path of Martial, who wrong-footed Valdes to grab United a goal at last.
And then, in the 85th minute, impactful substitute Juan Mata’s cross was headed in delicately by Pogba to complete the comeback.
Man United will finish the year in sixth place in the Premier League. But, at last, it’s looking like 2017 might be a better year.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.