Middlesbrough put themselves on the map in 2004 with their first silverware in 128 years and their first foray into Europe, but on the opening day of 2005 they were put in their place by a free-flowing Manchester United.
There may only have been two places between the teams in the table, but on the pitch there was a huge gulf in class.
With his three main strikers unavailable - Wayne Rooney's three-match suspension for violent conduct meant he was as unselectable as the injured Ruud van Nistelrooy and Louis Saha - Sir Alex Ferguson started with just Alan Smith up front, but this was a remarkably fluid, ever-changing formation. Roy Keane dropped anchor around the centre circle while the four other midfielders sailed forward at will, chopping and changing position so swiftly and so frequently that Boro needed a global navigation satellite to keep track of them.
In the eighth minute, Cristiano Ronaldo cropped up on the left. He picked up Paul Scholes' half-blocked shot and rammed it against the foot of the post. Yet less than a minute later, it was United's other winger, Ryan Giggs, who turned up on the left. He exchanged passes with Smith and fired in a cross-shot which Mark Schwarzer could only parry to Darren Fletcher. He gleefully rolled home his first goal of the season.
It set the pattern for the match in which Middlesbrough were overrun on their own patch. The selection of the Brazilian Doriva ahead of Szilard Nemeth was designed to bring some ballast to their midfield, but the injured George Boateng proved irreplaceable. Boro were chasing phantoms, and never holding the ball long enough to pick up momentum. And with Mark Viduka also injured, the game but effete Joseph-Desiré Job never threatened the imperturbable Rio Ferdinand.
Just before half-time, the Middlesbrough manager, Steve McClaren, appeared on the touchline in his open trenchcoat - the kick-off delayed for television had at least allowed the worst of the weather to pass - and urged his team to get the ball to their most potent weapon: Stewart Downing. Downing was, though, rewarded for his potential with a callous block from his hero Giggs at the opening of the first half - and at the start of the second it was followed up by a cruel clattering from Phil Neville.
For that new half, McClaren replaced Job with Nemeth to create a five-man midfield. Boro had had only one serious shot in the first half - Bolo Zenden lashing very wide after Roy Carroll had made a hash of a back-pass - but now they won their first two corners in quick succession. Downing took both, Hasselbaink headinghigh and wide, then Franck Queudrue coming closer - his header was only high.
Middlesbrough were at least making United toil - in the 71st minute the immaculate Ferdinand even ended up on his backside in his desperation to clear a Downing cross. But United's midfield movement still worried the home side. Twice Colin Cooper, making his 600th career League appearance, nearly put through his own net in his fright at the shapes being painted before him down the right by Giggs, Fletcher and Ronaldo. Indeed, a break by Ronaldo - this time down the left - was deemed so dangerous by Ray Parlour that he cynically blocked him. Parlour was booked; Ronaldo never recovered, but his replacement Eric Djemba-Djemba sent Giggs away for the 80th-minute goal that settled the game.
Giggs never quite controlled Djemba-Djemba's pass, but the ball slid uncomfortably between Gareth Southgate's legs and the Welshman trickled it past Schwarzer to give the scoreline a reflection of United's superiority.
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- Rio Ferdinand
- Ruud Van Nistelrooy
- Ryan Giggs