Sunderland avoided the dreaded bottom at Christmas ‘prize’ and now they have the opportunity to go one better and end the year outside the bottom three.
It’s a tall order for the Black Cats, who must win at Burnley on New Year’s Eve to drag themselves above the relegation zone.
The Clarets have an incredible record at Turf Moor – only Chelsea can boast more home wins than Sean Dyche’s side this season.
But how good would it be if Sunderland could burst that particular bubble on Saturday afternoon and provide a massive boost going into 2017?
If David Moyes’s players can reprise the same effort further north in Lancashire as they did here at the southern end of the county yesterday then they have every chance.
A 3-1 scoreline does not show it, but the Black Cats gave in-form and all-star Manchester United – now unbeaten in 11 games – a very difficult afternoon.
Sunderland must now display the same sort of team heart, allied to some better individual execution, against the hard-working and less-expensively-assembled Clarets.
The Black Cats had been in contention right up until the last 10 minutes when they gifted the ball to the hosts for Zlatan Ibrohimovic to net the match-clinching second before the gifted Henrikh Mkhitaryan added a third goal which matched his exciting talent.
Until then, Sunderland produced a display to give further hope they are heading in the right direction.
David de Gea was the busier of the keepers for much of the opening 45 minutes.
Firstly, he dived to his right to save a 20th-minute Patrick van Aanholt free-kick, the Dutchman’s best deadball effort of the season.
Then he blocked well from Victor Anichebe’s close-range effort after a beautiful delivery from Jermain Defoe.
The ball looked set to fall invitingly for Fabio Borini, but the Spaniard got the faintest of touches to put off the Cats forward and the Red Devils survived.
De Gea also collected a deflected Borini shoton the half-hour as the Italian enjoyed his best display since his return from injury.
There were a couple of heart-in-the-mouth moments at the other end.
Juan Mata, in for the absent Wayne Rooney, went tumbling under a strong Lamine Kone challenge, but referee Martin Atkinson ruled no penalty.
And the excellent Paul Pogba saw a shot deflected by Seb Larsson’s boot and clip Jordan Pickford’s left-hand post while the world’s most expensive player fired over the bar. But just as Sunderland seemed to be heading towards the interval level, Jose Mourinho’s men struck in the 39th minute.
Marcos Rojo came up from the back to support his forwards. He found Ibrahimovic in the box and the Swede teed up left-back Daley Blind, who fired home a low, left-foot 12-yard shot.
Pickford appeared as if he was slightly unsighted for the opener and the same problem occurred deep in first-half stoppage time from a sweetly-struck Mata free-kick from 23 yards, but the goalie got down smartly to save low to his right.
United carried on in the second half where they left off in the first, Ibrahimovic escaping Papy Djilobodji, though he was unable to play in Pogba when the Frenchman had a clear run on goal.
Pogba looks a class act, but he could not keeper a header down, while Ibrahimovic, who is not too shabby either, went over with a shot after a delightful ball from Mata.
However, just to emphasise the difference between sixth-top and third-bottom, Mourinho had the luxury of resting one international talent, Jesse Lingaard for Mkhitaryan, the near-£30million signing from Borussia Dortmund.
He soon lifted the slumbering home fans – 2,000-and-a-bit Sunderland supporters made more volume than the other 70,000-odd spectators at the Theatre of Dreams – by shooting just wide of Pickford’s left stick.
Sunderland appeared to have survived the best of what United could throw at them.
The Black Cats won a couple of corners and, with Anichebe showing his customary powerful hold-up play, it seemed a chance would come. From one such instance, Defoe had a wee sniff in the home box, but the ball would not quite fall for the leading scorer.
Not taking advantage of such moments of promise would come back to haunt the away side eight minutes from time.
Didier Ndong horribly gave away the ball and Pogba released Ibrahimovic, who advanced into the box where he coolly beat Pickford to his left. And Ibrahimovic had a say in the third and final United goal.
Sunderland coughed up the ball – this time Jason Denayer – and Ibrahimovic swung over a cross from the right.
Mkhitaryan was marginally offside, but his flicked seven-yard volley with his right boot was simply sublime to beat Pickford in his right corner.
After one breathtaking goal, another came in the last minute. United could not fully clear a Denayer cross and Borini let fly with a 20-yard volley past a despairing de Gea for a stunning consolation.
It was another positive for the Cats who must now put everything together on the final day of the year.