Ferguson left open-mouthed as Middlesbrough slam United

Middlesbrough 4 Manchester Utd 1
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The Independent Football

Their 4-1 defeat at The Riverside may have been their first away from home in the League this season but it was their worst since March last year when they lost by the same score to Manchester City.

It left them sixth - 13 points behind the leaders, Chelsea, and four behind Wigan. Cristiano Ronaldo's late goal gave him no joy. Ferguson said: "The players should be angry with themselves. It was a bad performance and it was compounded by the fact we lost with terrible goals."

Shorn of magic inspiration and a midfield Manchester United were out-thought, outfought and truly outplayed by a mid-table Middlesbrough side who were plucked out of their own doldrums by the brilliance of Gaizka Mendieta.

Some might even talk of a humbling, a humiliation of a side which now lies 13 points behind Chelsea, the team who visit Old Trafford next weekend. They all contributed to their downfall, from a weak-handed goalkeeper through to a tired defence, an absent midfield and an out-of-touch forward line.

Middlesbrough had a two-man team at their heart which drove them into a position of dominance. George Boateng was crashing into superhuman tackles while Mendieta was conducting clinical muggings and distributing wonderfully.

Plus they had a plan. Without Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu, Steve McClaren strung five across the back, providing an unbreachable foundation - with the goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer - for Mendieta to work from. He did so after just two minutes. The 18-year-old Matthew Bates, making his third start of the season, had already blocked Paul Scholes' opening rampage when, unattended, 25 yards out, Mendieta let fly. The ball might slightly have shaved John O'Shea as it flew by but that should only have assisted Edwin van der Sar, whose soft hands allowed it into the net.

Seventeen minutes later, after Chris Riggott's superb slide had denied Wayne Rooney what would be his only shooting chance of the game, Mendieta broke from his own area and picked up the ball again on the edge of United's, courtesy of an weak lay-off by Rio Ferdinand. This time the Spaniard cleared the bar - but he had exposed Ferdinand's fallibility. He exploited it five minutes later with an exquisite 30-yard pass over the England defender into the path of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. Ferdinand should still have been able to deal with the ball but, from behind his back as it bounced, Hasselbaink stole it from his toe and slammed it through Van der Sar.

Out-thought by McClaren, Sir Alex Ferguson made a change after half an hour, withdrawing Phil Bardsley and going initially for a trio of centre-backs although the new man, Kieran Richardson, appeared to mutate into a conventional left-back.

It was he who, with half-time approaching, unnecessarily tugged at Stuart Parnaby as he burst into the penalty area. The referee, Alan Wiley, waved away Boro's claims, but his assistant flagged. Yakubu Aiyegbeni had the final word, rolling the gentlest of penalties into a corner.

The last time Manchester United were three down at half-time was September 2001 at White Hart Lane when they recovered to win 5-3. This, though, is a very ordinary side. United appeared to have only two at the back at times and any number in midfield - but the only one in there that counted was Mendieta.

Fittingly, in the 76th minute, he scored the fourth. Yakubu tiptoed around Ferdinand - who later, perhaps pointedly, was substituted for Wes Brown - and pulled the ball back for Mendieta to slot home simply. Even though, with seconds remaining, the substitute Cristiano Ronaldo headed in a corner, United's wounds are red raw.

After sharing a glass of wine with Ferguson, McClaren said: "It is very rare you experience a victory like that against such great opposition and I've told the players to enjoy it because they deserved it."