It was not quite another Greg Louganis masterclass, but Cristiano Ronaldo was back at his vertically challenged antics again last night. It was more of a stumble to the ground than a full-on dive that earned Manchester United their vital 19th-minute penalty at the Riverside, but television replays showed that their Portuguese winger had not been helped on his way by Mark Schwarzer.
The Middlesbrough goalkeeper was incandescent with rage - justifiably, it transpired - though presumably no more so than Gareth Southgate was when he watched the slow-motion replay. Without the benefit of videotaped hindsight, the referee, Chris Foy, pointed to the penalty spot and Louis Saha scored the goal that sent Sir Alex Ferguson's United on their way to being six points clear of Chelsea in the title race.
On the balance of play, Sir Alex's side deserved their victory, though the manner in which it was secured left a bitter taste in the hosts' mouths.
There were three survivors in Ferguson's starting line-up from the United team who secured the Premiership crown with a 3-0 win at Middlesbrough on the final day of the 1995-96 season, Ryan Giggs returning after his midweek rest to join Paul Scholes and Gary Neville. There was one notable surprise in Ferguson's selection, the £18.6 million Michael Carrick dropping to the bench, with Darren Fletcher partnering Scholes in central midfield.
It was at the Riverside last season that United suffered their first reverse on the road, a 4-1 defeat in October. On that occasion they were a goal behind inside two minutes and 3-0 down by half-time. They did not make the best of starts yesterday, Giggs needlessly conceding a corner in the opening minute, which encouraged Middlesbrough on to the front foot in the early stages.
Still, after the half-scare of Malcolm Christie hooking a volley wide of goal, it was United who showed a sharper cutting edge, in their approach play at least. They might have broken through in the 12th minute but when Giggs hoisted a left-wing corner and Saha directed a downward header towards goal, Robert Huth chested the ball clear of the danger zone. It proved to be a temporary reprieve for Middlesbrough. Their defence had already been stretched to breaking point when Saha played in Ronaldo behind the home guard and the winger crashed to the ground under challenge from Schwarzer.
At first glance it looked as though the Middlesbrough goalkeeper had clipped Ronaldo with his right foot. Slow-motion replays subsequently confirmed no contact had been made but, without the benefit of any kind of second glance, the referee pointed to the penalty spot and Saha converted it, atoning for his Champions' League miss at Celtic Park.
Luck remained on United's side two minutes later, when Stewart Downing floated a free-kick from the left and Abel Xavier powered a header past Edwin van der Sar, only to see it smack off the Dutchman's left-hand post. Nonetheless, fortune favoured Middlesbrough in the 34th minute, Wayne Rooney poking the ball wide with the home goal at his mercy.
Schwarzer had to stretch to tip over a Ronaldo shot before the interval from a free-kick earned by the young man from Madeira with what television showed to be another absence of actual contact from an opposition player. Still, for all the jeers that rang around the Riverside, United remained the dominant force. They ought to have doubled their lead in the 62nd minute, but when Scholes and Rooney combined to leave Giggs with a clear chance the Welshman sent his finish blazing over the crossbar. It looked to be costly four minutes later; Gabriel Heinze failed to clear a teasing Stewart Downing cross from the left and James Morrison drilled home a right-foot shot.
Not that the Riverside regulars were celebrating for very long. Though Schwarzer managed to force Ronaldo wide of goal in the 68th minute, the winger cut the ball back for Giggs, whose cross into the penalty area was headed in by Fletcher.