Football: Solskjaer keeps United on course

BATTLE FOR THE PREMIERSHIP: No singing in the rain for champions as Brazilian playmaker inspires Boro Manchester United 3 Middlesbrough 3

Manchester United remain on course to retain the title, although when Middlesbrough swept into a 3-1 lead in an Old Trafford epic yesterday the 55,000 crowd were clinging to the reign rather than singing in the rain.

Demonstrating that they are a team for all seasons, United retrieved a two-goal deficit on a pitch which often resembled a lake, exactly as they had done in searing heat at Leicester 48 hours earlier. But Middlesbrough, despite losing Fabrizio Ravanelli to a torn hamstring that makes him doubtful for the FA Cup final, refused to relinquish a vital point towards their struggle against relegation.

United will be crowned champions for the fourth time in five seasons if both Newcastle and Liverpool lose in London tonight. Even if both their rivals keep up the pursuit, they have two further opportunities to secure the victory that would enable them to take the trophy in front of their own fans for the first time since 1965: against Newcastle on Thursday and West Ham on Sunday.

Middlesbrough must also cram in two fixtures, at Blackburn and Leeds, and might need to win both to survive. Without the 31-goal Italian, it will be a tall order, yet to judge by this performance they may have just enough fire to overcome the inevitable fatigue.

If anything, United showed greater signs of strain. For much of the first half, a Middlesbrough side inspired by the genius of Juninho exposed an uncertainty at the heart of Alex Ferguson's defence which should encourage Messrs Hartson and Kitson, let alone Shearer and Ferdinand. "The worst we've defended in six years," the United manager complained.

A year to the day after regaining the championship by overcoming Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium, United found Bryan Robson's team more resilient on his return to the theatre of dreams. It was more like a theatre of streams, with so much rain falling during the match, but Boro initially made light of both the conditions and their parlous position to drive forward with a purpose that belied their draining schedule.

Ravanelli had already shaken Peter Schmeichel's left-hand upright before they took the lead with a sumptuous goal after 15 minutes. In a patient build-up of 18 passes, which took them from the left-back position to the inside-right channel and then left again, Juninho was involved on five occasions. The Brazilian's last touch, after Craig Hignett spotted him overlapping, was to angle the ball beyond the goalkeeper for his 14th goal of the season.

A flurry of four goals in eight minutes took both teams through the gamut of emotions. Middlesbrough were probably distracted by the melodrama of Ravanelli's injury when their goal fell in the 34th minute.

Andy Cole, spinning sharply near the penalty spot, saw his shot blocked by Gianluca Festa. But the ball broke to Roy Keane, who drilled in only his second goal of the campaign. Only then did Ravanelli hobble off clutching his thigh.

Yet within five minutes, Boro were two goals to the good, having again shown what a fine side they can be going forward. Juninho launched the move which restored their advantage, contemptuously skipping past Gary Neville before seeking out Chris Freestone. With his first touch of the game, Ravanelli's replacement played in Emerson, who bludgeoned a first- time shot home off the underside of the bar.

United were still trying to take in their plight when it deepened. Another sweet exchange of passes, again involving Freestone, saw Robbie Mustoe surging into the box on the right flank. Nominally his team's token defensive midfielder, Mustoe delivered a textbook cross which Hignett headed home after stealing in front of Gary Neville.

Despite conceding three goals for the second Premiership home game in succession, United's reaction was typically positive. Three minutes before half-time, with white-shirted defenders massing in front of Ben Roberts, Cole and the strangely ineffectual Eric Cantona worked the ball wide for Gary Neville to bullet a diagonal drive past the keeper for his first senior goal.

For most of the second half, Middlesbrough were pushed back. Juninho began to show that he was mortal after all, performing in fits and starts where previously he had been poetry in motion. However, United also found the going heavy, both literally and mentally, and did not restore parity until the 67th minute.

Nigel Pearson and his fellow defenders had dealt admirably, often bravely, with a succession of crosses by David Beckham which dipped out of the slate grey sky like shells. But when Gary Neville ploughed forward to cross, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer materialised unmarked to head his 18th goal of a remarkable first season.

The drama would have been complete had the referee awarded a penalty after Denis Irwin fell under a challenge from Phil Stamp with five minutes remaining. The only doubt appeared to centre on whether it was a foul or obstruction, which would have produced a free-kick. Mr Gallagher, lenient to the last, had detected neither offence.

Middlesbrough thus left Old Trafford having played a full part in a six- goal spectacular, less than a month after sharing an identical scoreline with Chesterfield at the same venue. On that occasion they went on to succeed at the second attempt. Neutrals may now be hoping for a similar outcome, if only to guarantee the continued presence of Juninho in the English game.

Manchester United (4-3-1-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, May, Pallister, Irwin; Beckham, Johnsen (Scholes, 73), Keane; Cantona; Solskjaer, Cole. Substitutes not used: P Neville, McClair, Poborsky, Van der Gouw (gk)

Middlesbrough (4-4-1-1): Roberts; Fleming, Pearson, Festa, Blackmore; Stamp, Mustoe, Emerson (Kinder, 87), Hignett (Vickers, 75); Juninho; Ravanelli (Freestone, 36). Substitutes not used: Cox, Whyte.

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

FA Carling Premiership

P W D L F A Pts

Man Utd 36 20 11 5 74 44 71

Liverpool 36 19 10 7 60 34 67

Arsenal 37 18 11 8 59 31 65

Newcastle 35 18 9 8 68 40 63

Aston Villa 37 16 10 11 46 34 58

Chelsea 37 15 11 11 56 54 56

Sheff Wed 36 14 14 8 49 49 56

Wimbledon 36 13 11 12 46 45 50

Tottenham 37 13 7 17 43 49 46

Derby 37 11 13 13 44 55 46

Leeds 37 11 12 14 27 37 45

Everton 37 10 12 15 43 55 42

Blackburn 36 9 14 13 40 39 41

Southampton 37 10 11 16 50 55 41

West Ham 36 10 11 15 39 46 41

Leicester 36 10 11 15 41 52 41

Sunderland 37 10 10 17 35 52 40

Coventry 37 8 14 15 36 53 38

Middlesbro* 36 10 10 16 50 59 37

N Forest (R) 37 6 16 15 31 54 34

*Middlesbrough deducted three points

Remaining fixtures

TODAY

Wimbledon v Liverpool

West Ham United v Newcastle United

TOMORROW

Leicester v Sheffield Wednesday

THURSDAY

Blackburn Rovers v Middlesbrough

Manchester United v Newcastle United

SUNDAY

Aston Villa v Southampton

Blackburn Rovers v Leicester City

Derby County v Arsenal

Everton v Chelsea

Leeds United v Middlesbrough

Manchester United v West Ham United

Newcastle United v Nottingham Forest

Sheffield Wednesday v Liverpool

Tottenham Hotspur v Coventry

Wimbledon v Sunderland

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Arts and Entertainment
Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley ((C) Red Productions/Ben Blackall)
TV
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?