For most people, January stretches ahead bleak, cold and unforgiving. However, for Sir Alex Ferguson it has always been a month that appeals to the Puritan in him. With no distractions, save for the odd Cup tie, it is a time when the harshness of the League season can be embraced.
It has always been an article of faith at Old Trafford that January is their month, the one in which they burn off the opposition. In the past decade they have played 35 January fixtures and won 24 of them. Few, admittedly, could have been quite as straightforward as New Year's Day at Middlesbrough, a club that under both Bryan Robson and Steve McClaren have dealt as effectively with Manchester United as anyone else.
They had watched Chelsea dig out a lunch-time victory at Anfield, with Rio Ferdinand admitting that Joe Cole's goal against the run of play had left a queasy feeling in their stomachs. Word would have come through that Arsenal had won at Charlton. Early-evening defeat to a Boro side that had won their last five matches on Teesside would have left United a dozen points off the pace.
Naturally, they stood up and were counted. Alan Smith led the line wonderfully in Wayne Rooney's absence and it was obvious that Roy Keane, still "the heartbeat of the team" in McClaren's words, would allow no compromise.
However, as against Bolton and Aston Villa over Christmas, the stage truly belonged to Ryan Giggs, who at 31 is playing as well as at any time in his career. His goal, anticipating Eric Djemba-Djemba's pass before either of Boro's centre-halves, was his third in as many matches, and it was his shot, parried by Mark Schwarzer, that presented Darren Fletcher with United's opener. If there were nerves, they had evaporated into the aching chill with nine minutes gone.
Inside the United dressing-room there appears to be considerable disquiet that the club's board is ignoring the Welshman's demand for a longer extension to his contract than the one-year deal currently offered. Gary Neville, United's unofficial shop steward, said that Giggs "should not have to justify his importance to this club", sentiments that struck a chord with Ferdinand.
"I don't think he will be leaving," the defender remarked. "I would not want to let him go and I am sure every player in the team would echo that. He is probably the most decorated player in English football and one I never enjoyed playing against. For anyone to doubt his ability makes you laugh."
Those who put faith in Middlesbrough's organisation, sprinkled with a dusting of flair, were to be profoundly disillusioned. They spent New Year's Day like so many others, metaphorically curled up on the sofa with time drifting by. Stewart Downing, whose wing play had badly unsettled United during the 1-1 draw at Old Trafford in October, unveiled a series of crosses that were either inaccurate or not anticipated by McClaren's forward line.
Boro, who have Everton's discipline and rather more natural talent, are still well placed to spend the second part of the season challenging for the fourth Champions' League place. However, the suspicion is that both clubs resemble the amateur golfer who finds himself leading the Open after two rounds, spends the night contemplating the enormity of what he is about to do, and then sees his nerve and game go. Stamford Bridge tomorrow is no place for an attack of the yips.
Goals: Fletcher (9) 0-1; Giggs (80) 0-2.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Reiziger, Cooper, Southgate, Queudrue; Parlour, Doriva (Morrison, 78), Zenden, Downing; Job (Nemeth, h-t), Hasselbaink. Substitutes not used: Nash (gk), Davies, McMahon.
Manchester United (4-3-2-1): Carroll; P Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze; Fletcher, Keane, Scholes; Giggs (Bellion, 83), Ronaldo (Djemba-Djemba, 78); Smith. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), G Neville, Spector.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Booked: Middlesbrough Parlour.
Man of the match: Giggs.
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