It only took one lapse in concentration. After nearly 90 minutes of solid defence, warding off attack after attack and keeping out complex passing moves, the equaliser came from one of the simplest attacks of the night. Desperation had begun to set in for Manchester United, as Middlesbrough threatened to end a year of upsets with a surprise of their own. Eric Bailly heaved the ball forward, managing to hit Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the edge of the box. He flicked on a header, and Anthony Martial rammed it home to level the scores.
Seconds later, they had taken the lead. After Gaston Ramirez was denied a penalty at the other end, Juan Mata set up Paul Pogba, finding space to cross and hitting the Frenchman with pinpoint accuracy. The header went in to the top corner, leaving Victor Valdes with no chance. It was devastating for Boro, as the game was turned on its head in a dramatic couple of minutes.
United had been the better side. From the start, they had gained a hold over possession and they were creating opportunities. Pogba hit the post with a bicycle kick, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan was everywhere as he created chances for himself and others. It was, however, a shocking decision which gave Boro a massive let-off. Martial was the spark, first hitting the post from long range before collecting the ball and weaving his way into the box. He crossed it, and Ibrahimovic only had to extend his leg to get the ball into the back of the net.
Then the controversy began. Valdes went down, and referee Lee Mason determined that Ibrahimovic had fouled him as the two collided following the goal. United were in disbelief, but the decision stood. Boro survived. As the second half began, the chances started to come a little more readily. Ibrahimovic was denied at close range by Valdes. Pogba tried another bicycle kick, with much less success. Mkhitaryan was through, but offside. Then, after being denied on so many occasions, it was United who went behind. Calum Chambers put in a good cross for Alvaro Negredo, whose header into the path of Grant Leadbitter was perfect. The ball was struck first-time, and it left David de Gea with no chance. United’s recurring nightmare seemed to be happening again.
The emotional rollercoaster of a game was not yet over. There was controversy, as Marcus Rashford was denied what appeared to be a clear penalty after he tangled with Bernardo Espinosa. There was some excellent goalkeeping, and a brilliant cameo off the bench from Rashford. In the end, however, it was Manchester United who dominated, and Manchester United who were deserved winners thanks to their late surge.
Despite this, Boro did create some chances thanks to the explosive pace of Adama Traore, who was at his dynamic best. A bad decision from Traore proved costly a couple of minutes in, as a goal scoring opportunity on the break was missed. They could have scored again a little while later when Traore first beat Daley Blind to the ball before running around him and managing to slip past Chris Smalling in an exceptional display of speed. The cross left George Friend with an open goal, but the controlling touch proved costly.
In the end, Boro were fighting an uphill battle from the start, and nothing could change that for them. They came close, but ultimately they left disappointed, and desperately short on points heading into the new year. United, on the other hand, enter the new year with confidence after a string of victories, and they will be desperate to continue in their current vein of form and try to make an impact on the top four.
Manchester – Old Trafford
Manchester United 2 (Martial 85, Pogba 86)
Middlesbrough 1 (Leadbitter 67)
Referee: Lee Mason
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Valencia, Bailly, Smalling (Rashford 72), Blind (Rojo 64); Fellaini (Mata 64), Herrera; Mkhitaryan, Pogba, Martial; Ibrahimovic.
Middlesbrough (4-1-4-1): Valdes – Chambers, Espinosa, Gibson, Friend; Leadbitter (Clayton 78); Traore (Fabio 82), Forshaw, de Roon, Downing (Ramirez 63); Negredo.
1. Anthony Martial (Manchester United)
Martial was in top form throughout, wreaking havoc on the left wing and proving a nightmare for Calum Chambers. He was able to work his way into dangerous positions with his excellent skill on the ball, and he scored the equaliser with a very nice finish.
2. Victor Valdes (Middlesbrough)
Valdes kept Boro in the game with some incredible saves, and until United’s last burst it looked as if he was going to win it for them. His positioning was very good throughout, and his clean hands did not allow United to capitalise on his mistakes.
3. Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Manchester United)
Mkhitaryan was in top form, picking out teammates in good positions and cutting inside to provide a big threat from the right wing. He was unlucky not to score on a few occasions, and he will look to continue his good form into the new year.
4. Adama Traore (Middlesbrough)
Traore was Boro’s main attacking weapon, displaying incredible speed and, at times, finesse. He was too fast for anyone on the pitch, and he left Blind for dead on a few occasions. He was unlucky not to create a goal for his side, but he will take confidence from his performance.
5. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Pogba scored the winner with an excellent header, and it was his ability to get into dangerous positions which caused serious problems for Boro. He ran the show from attacking midfield, and something always happened when he had the ball at his feet.