Middlesbrough. . . . .0
MANCHESTER UNITED sustained their assault on the Premier League championship as assuredly as Middlesbrough are plummeting towards the First Division. But for some extraordinarily profligate finishing and inspired goalkeeping by Stephen Pears, the scoreline would have more accurately reflected the ultimate gulf between the teams.
Just one audacious intervention from Ryan Giggs was sufficient this week to kick-start United and by the end they might have been recruiting the scorer from that other sporting arena down the road.
Another capacity Old Trafford crowd joined the nationwide silent homage to Bobby Moore before the match, the scene rendered all the more poignant by the snow falling on the ring of United and Middlesbrough players. Few men have attained more stature in the game, but perhaps history will record that one of those out there in the middle yesterday also went on to achieve greatness.
Giggs is much more than flavour of the month, he is that rare talent, a player so gifted he would have excelled in any era. His two late goals against Southampton in this stadium the previous week won United a match they were within eight minutes of losing, and he scored midway through the first half yesterday to give them an initiative that they had been scratching for.
Five consecutive defeats had plunged Middlesbrough deep into relegation territory, yet to their enormous credit they remained faithful to constructive creed and appeared undaunted by United's lofty standing. Not that Alex Ferguson's side instantly flowed like championship favourites. The wayward nature of their early play was epitomised by Eric Cantona's high and wide volley from the edge of the area.
Giggs was given licence to roam, appearing on both flanks and down the middle, but it was from his more familiar left that he engineered one opening that Mark Hughes spurned and conjured the opener a minute later. Seemingly squeezed for space and options close to the line by Chris Morris, the 19-year-old Welsh international audaciously elected to shoot left-footed and the ball arrowed past a startled Pears into the far top corner. It was a goal in keeping with his recent form and boundless self-confidence.
It also released any tension from United's football, and by half-time they ought to have put the match beyond Boro's reach.
Hughes planted the ball in Middlesbrough's net only to be denied a goal because of a foul, Denis Irwin's free-kick struck a post, an indecisive Lee Sharpe scorned two opportunities and even Giggs wasted a one-on-one with Pears as United sought to convert their superiority into a more secure lead.
The long-awaited second goal arrived in the 79th minute, this time Irwin's free-kick from 25 yards bending just inside the post, and Cantona meandered elegantly through to claim United's third, albeit at the second attempt, five minutes from the end.
The United manager Alex Ferguson said: 'That performance by Pears was the best I've seen by any goalkeeper this season. But we never relaxed and our penetration was brilliant. We've worked on that. You've got to have patience and perseverance.'
And the Middlesbrough manager, Lennie Lawrence, returned the compliment. 'I'm certain United will win the League this time,' he said. 'I think they'll draw strength from missing out last year and be determined to do it this time. They score a lot of late goals; the sign of a side who keep going.'
Manchester United: P Schmeichel; P Parker, D Irwin, S Bruce, L Sharpe, G Pallister, E Cantona, P Ince, B McClair, M Hughes, R Giggs. Subs not used: A Kanchelskis, M Phelan, L Sealey (gk). Manager: A Ferguson.
Middlesbrough: S Pears; C Morris, J Phillips, D Whyte, N Mohan, A Peake, J Hendrie, R Mustoe (B Slaven, 68 min), P Wilkinson, C Kamara, T Wright. Subs not used: A Kernaghan, I Ironside (gk). Manager: L Lawrence.
Referee: K Hackett (Sheffield).
Goals: Giggs (1-0, 21 min); Irwin (2-0, 79 min); Cantona (3-0, 85 min).Reuse content