IF THERE were doubts about Manchester United's commitment to the FA Cup they can safely be discarded now. Yesterday they ran, they scrapped and they clung on to a place in the fourth round by naked willpower. Their reward is substantial, a home tie against Liverpool.
That plum is an apt prize for yesterday's game because this was no stroll in the cold Old Trafford air. United were stretched to the limit by Middlesbrough who, when they took the lead after 50 minutes, were on course to repeat last month's win here in the Premiership. Instead, there was a rousing home comeback.
Three goals in the final 22 minutes from Andy Cole, Denis Irwin (penalty) and Ryan Giggs overwhelmed Andy Towns-end's opener and gave the scoreline a unrepresentative look that became even more distorted with the help of television replays.
These showed that Neil Maddison made little or no contact with Nicky Butt when the latter earned a penalty for United's second. "The referee bought Butt's dive," was Bryan Robson, the Middlesbrough manager's reaction, while even Alex Ferguson described it as "softish".
Maddison was also adamant. "It cost us the game," he said. "I made no contact whatsoever. I said to Nicky: `I can't believe you've gone down'. The linesman didn't flag. The referee was on the blind side, I don't know how he could make the decision from there."
A feature of the league encounter at Old Trafford was the physical mauling Brian Deane and Hamilton Ricard gave United's back four. So it was with some relief that Ferguson could place the fit-again Jaap Stam in the team.
The difference was stark. Whereas United's defence began nervously three weeks previously and the visitors were the epitome of calm, it was Boro yesterday who opened like they had not had time to learn their lines. Ryan Giggs and Wes Brown ripped at the left flank and substantial damage was expected at any moment. Roy Keane missed a volley after 10 minutes, blazing high, but instead of heralding a sequence of chances, United suddenly were confronted by a Boro side who had sorted themselves out and the first half became a stalemate rather than a statement of intent.
That changed five minutes after half-time when the visitors showed their improvement with a goal on the break. Colin Cooper launched a long pass, Deane headed on and Townsend deftly slipped the ball past Peter Schmeichel at the far post.
United had won only one of their previous eight matches, but Ferguson said he was concerned rather than worried by this setback. "The way we spread the game and passed it around," he said, "they were going to tire. When we went ahead they couldn't come back."
His side had to get there first and it required a goal of splendid simplicity to make the first breach in the resilient Boro ranks. Giggs drifted in from the right wing before turning sharply to play in Cole just beyond Gary Pallister's shoulder. The striker's pace and power did the rest, lashing the ball in at the near post.
Robson did not want a replay and brought on Phil Stamp and Mikkel Beck to force the issue either way, but to his chagrin the 82nd-minute penalty decision ensured his gamble backfired. "I'm checking to see if there are two moons," Ferguson said, "because we got a penalty. We never get penalties at Old Trafford."
Boro had to pour forward in a 10-minute pursuit of glory but, instead of prising United apart, they were shredded with an incisive and devastatingly quick break from Giggs. The Welshman exchanged a one-two with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and then slipped the ball through the advancing Schwarzer's legs.
"Our concentration was excellent today," Ferguson said. "I think we have our breath back after that session when we played nine games in 31 days."
Goals: Townsend (50) 0-1; Cole (68) 1-1; Irwin (pen 81) 2-1; Giggs (90) 3-1.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Brown (P Neville, 74), Berg, Stam, Irwin; Giggs, Butt, Keane, Blomqvist (Solskjaer, 72); Cole (Sheringham, 83), Yorke. Substitutes not used: Cruyff, Van der Gouw (gk).
Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Schwarzer; Cooper, Maddison, Pallister; Fleming, Mustoe (Stamp, 61), Gascoigne (Beck, 74), Townsend, Gordon; Deane, Ricard. Substitutes not used: Stockdale, Blackmore, Beresford (gk).
Referee: G Barber (Tring).
Booking: Middlesbrough: Deane.
Man of the match: Cole.
Attendance: 52,232.Reuse content