The manager was fiddling agitatedly with his spectacles, his team blowing steam into the freezing night. And then up stepped Dimitar Berbatov, the man who stands outside the sound and fury on occasions like this, waiting for his moment. Sir Alex Ferguson paid £30.75m so he would pick a route through teams like Middlesbrough, on nights when they have thrown so many men behind the ball that you can barely see grass amid the sea of blue shirts, and it happens to be in his nature that he will oblige in his own good time.
Berbatov left the stadium as coolly as he took his 69th finish, sporting a wide-brimmed Dolce & Gabbana cap, and Ferguson, his team now seven points behind Liverpool with two games in hand, was all mild indifference, too, about his most expensive signing's finish. "Great vision, he's got that you see," said Ferguson.
But it is a safe bet that is not how he was feeling when the Bulgarian started the match-winning move and stepped into the box to finish it. The muffled strains of "Argentina" were already ringing out by then, testament to another cursed night of possession minus finishing power from United and the belief in some quarters that Carlos Tevez, who had been allowed to miss this game to attend to "family issues" in his native Argentina, has not been given the chances he deserves. They feel that way because busy little "Carlito" was never out of packed penalty boxes last season on occasions like this, while Berbatov had barely been in it here before he stepped up to score. Ferguson insisted that dispensation for the Argentine was justified. "When their parents and family are so far from home you have to be patient with them," he said. But his release might equally be read as a commentary on Ferguson's indifference to a player United are palpably less keen to sign permanently than they were this summer.
One damned statistic accentuates the debate for Ferguson: United have scored four goals in six league games. But there are more immediate concerns for now, like the temperament of the man who led them, single handed at times, to the double last spring. The latest outpouring of indignation from Cristiano Ronaldo was as fabricated as many of his others – an apparent arm around his neck from Emmanuel Pogatetz in the Middlesbrough box as the first half wound to a close. There was little in it, no elbows certainly, but after seeking out referee Martin Atkinson and waving an arm in his face, Ronaldo found the Middlesbrough skipper – remembered here for the ugly challenge on Rodrigo Possebon which saw the Austrian sent off in September's Carling Cup clash – and their head-to-head argument continued down the tunnel.
It hardly supported Ferguson's call, in his programme notes, for an end to the "rift" that has somehow developed between the two clubs since Southgate accused Ronaldo of gamesmanship over the penalty he won in United's 2-1 at the Riverside in December 2006. Ferguson was vague about Ronaldo's assertions. "I couldn't make it out on the video but you see this in penalty boxes all the time," he said. "Defenders are getting away with murder." In the circumstances, Southgate was diplomatic. "There was a lot of noise and finger pointing but I don't think anything went on. When teams are defending from corners there will obviously be contact."
Ronaldo was giving vent to the effects of a first half of utter frustration. It was as much a test of United's creative powers as any could be, Southgate arranging five of his side in a midfield which retreated into the box at the first opportunity and though Ronaldo had ample possession in the first half, the latest, lime green boots could not fashion anything from it. He peered ruefully at the pitch after one of those boots skewed a Rooney lay-off wide, gazed up to the heavens after he failed to get purchase on another, which Darren Fletcher allowed to run on to him – one of a half dozen bad misses. The Ballon d'Or winner has not found the net since scoring twice in the demolition of Stoke on 15 November. The tantrums are not helping.
Boro, attempting to reverse a drop into relegation realms, had much to do with these frustrations. Though the closest they came to the target was the header Tugay diverted wide from a cross supplied by right back Matthew Bates (joyfully restored to their ranks after two and half years and three cruciate injuries) their resilience was epitomised by Ross Turnbull, the goalkeeper in whom Southgate has invested his faith following Mark Schwarzer's departure. The 23-year-old brilliantly palmed away one thumping effort Rooney unleashed, after Ronaldo had nodded on Fletcher's long ball. It was one of a half-dozen difficult saves.
There were even more spectacular misses, Park ballooning over from two yards after meeting one Gary Neville cross – though he was mercifully and incorrectly ruled offside. And then Berbatov finally propelled United home. After releasing Park down the left, the Bulgarian strode into the area after David Wheater cleared poorly from Michael Carrick's cross and thumped the ball home.
United's defence – which has not conceded a league goal since Samir Nasri's second strike at Arsenal on 8 November, over 10 hours of football ago – has somehow been overlooked as they have stepped towards the summit. But it is in the striking department that awkward questions persist.
Goal: Berbatov (68) 1-0.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Van der Sar; Rafael (Neville, 62), Vidic, Evans, O'Shea; Park, Fletcher (Scholes, 62), Carrick, Ronaldo (Giggs, 84); Rooney; Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Welbeck, Gibson, Possebon.
Middlesbrough (4-5-1): Turnbull; Bates, Riggott, Wheater, Pogatetz; Aliadière (Emnes, 76), O'Neil, Arca, Downing, Tuncay; Alves. Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Taylor, Huth, Shawky, Porritt, Walker.
Booked: Manchester United Park, Scholes.
Referee: M Atkinson (Yorkshire).
Man of the match: Berbatov.
Attendance: 75,294.Reuse content