Gary Pallister's first goal of the season just before half-time and Andy Cole's first in eight games just before full-time keep United snapping at the heels of Newcastle, in action today at Tottenham. As for Middlesbrough, they played tenaciously enough, too much so at times, but are clearly in need of the sort of attacking invention that Juninho will surely provide.
The Old Trafford crowd these days is a one-eyed monster. When United are not steam- rollering the opposition, the atmosphere is flat, visiting fans still precluded because of building work. Curiously, it can work against United, their flowing movements traditionally fuelled by raucous support, and their best performances have been away from home so far.
Perversely, Keane's dismissal helped them. As the Middlesbrough assistant manager Viv Anderson noted: "We had silenced them, then the sending-off got them going." Previously frustrated by Middlesbrough's resistance and persistence, now the crowd roused itself and its team. Any sense of injustice was misplaced, however; Keane struck Jan Age Fjortoft with a right-hander after having his shirt pulled. "Nobody could dispute it," the United manager, Alex Ferguson, admitted.
The applause for the departing Keane, whose hot-headedness often undermines his game, which has been impressive of late, was also misplaced along with the jeering of the referee, Stephen Lodge, whose handling of what became a tetchy game, with four Middlesbrough players booked, was properly rigorous.
At first it seemed that United would pierce Middlesbrough's three-man central defence easily enough. Ryan Giggs sent Cole into space but his shot was blocked. Then Steve Bruce clipped a ball forward on to which Cantona turned swiftly, striking a fierce shot that Gary Walsh turned over the bar in the manner learnt on United's training ground.
But soon Middlesbrough illustrated why they came into the game having conceded only four goals in 10 league matches, the best defensive record in the Premiership. Nigel Pearson was in commanding form at the back and Robbie Mustoe and Jamie Pollock worked hard in midfield to deny United the space to instigate any flowing movement.
Middlesbrough looked dangerous on the break, too, and might even have snatched the lead when Nick Barmby's ball from the right found Fjortoft, who ferried it on to Chris Morris, catching United's defence square, forcing Peter Schmeichel to save at his feet. Soon after, the goalkeeper also had to parry Craig Hignett's near-post drive.
Between the two chances came Keane's dismissal, its roots possibly in his anger at a tackle - hard but fair - on Cantona by Pearson. A turning point, probably, but more tangible change of direction came right on half- time. From Giggs's corner, Walsh punched the ball out weakly to Pallister, whose clever header from 12 yards looped in.
In the second half, Boro, tentative in attack, could not change their game - perhaps with next week's long-awaited debut of Juninho, whose international clearance came through last night, things may be different. United did change, however. On came Brian McClair in place of Paul Scholes to bring experience to the midfield. Fjortoft hit the outside of a post but it was an isolated event. Finally Cantona's penetrating pass found Cole and he turned inside the debutant Phil Whelan and hit a shot that looped in off Walsh.
"I was nearly running on and putting the bloody thing in myself," said Ferguson, feeling for his hitherto misfiring striker. Now Old Trafford was raucous - with relief.Reuse content