Football: Ferguson lacks cutting edge

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The Independent Online
Middlesbrough 2 Manchester United 2

Shortly after Peter Schmeichel was beaten for the second time the man on the Tannoy warned those who had travelled from west of the Pennines that heavy snow was falling on the M62. It must have come as a relief to the north-west branch of the Manchester United supporters' club. They had no need to worry about those UFOs at the filling stations.

The stuttering Premiership champions could do with not so much another ball-juggling Knighton in apparently shining armour as a specialist jouster to lead from the front. They scored twice but continued to look like a team without a focal point; rather like Newcastle United when they played out the remainder of the season before last without a centre- forward after selling Andy Cole.

A first point won on the road for nine weeks was, in the context of United's recent troubles, a step forward of sorts. It was claimed, moreover, in the absence of eight first-choice players.

Yet Alex Ferguson surely knows he must somehow sharpen the blunt end of his team. In United's last seven Premiership and Champions' League matches only two goals have been scored by attacking players - and David Beckham, who found the net with Paul Scholes at Southampton, is as much a midfielder as a forward-support man.

David May, with three goals, has emerged as the most potent threat to opponents and even Nigel Winterburn can claim to have scored more goals for United of late - or goal, to be precise - than Eric Cantona.

Cantona pushed up alongside Scholes on Saturday, but for all the neat approach play United produced (they looked a class apart in the first 20 minutes) their two forwards had just one chance between them in 90 minutes.

Fabrizio Ravanelli, by contrast, might easily have scored a hat-trick. In addition to his 27th- minute equaliser of Roy Keane's headed opening goal, he missed two clear chances, had two penalty appeals turned down and would have taken Middlesbrough's late penalty had he not already withdrawn because of an ankle injury.

Whenever Middlesbrough broke forward, more often than not through the quicksilver Juninho, they did so with a swiftness and a sense of purpose because of the target man ceaselessly seeking quickfire ammunition at the apex of their formation.

The trouble for Bryan Robson will be holding on to Ravanelli, even though he insists none of his unsettled foreigners are for sale and Ferguson has promised he will not poach from his former captain of midfield industry.

Ferguson, though, is in urgent need of a goal-poacher, or even just a natural leader for his forward line. Had he been blessed with one on Saturday, Middlesbrough might have needed more than Craig Hignett's 82nd-minute penalty to stop United getting back on the road with a first League win away from Old Trafford since September.

Goals: Keane (17) 0-1; Ravanelli (27) 1-1; May (73) 1-2; Hignett pen (83) 2-2.

Middlesbrough (4-3-1-2): Walsh; Cox, Vickers, Whyte, Fleming; Hignett, Mustoe, Moore; Juninho; Ravanelli (Stamp, 76), Beck. Substitutes not used: Whelan, Fjortoft, Morris, Roberts (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Clegg, May, Johnsen, O'Kane (McClair, 89); Beckham, Butt, Keane, Thornley (Cruyff, 72); Cantona, Scholes. Substitutes not used: Poborsky, Casper, Van der Gouw (gk).

Bookings: Middlesbrough: Cox. Manchester United: Cruyff.

Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).

Man of the match: Juninho. Attendance: 30,063.