Middlesbrough 1 Manchester United 2: Ronaldo's talent let down by penalty area dark arts

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According to Gareth Southgate's programme notes, Sir Alex Ferguson is "someone whose achievements all young managers can aspire to" and, more pertinently, he "looked forward to offering him some hospitality after the game".

Judging by Southgate's after-match comments and Ferguson's hasty departure from the Riverside Stadium, this was not something that came to pass.

One point of controversy dominated proceedings and that was United's first-half penalty. Confronted by the video replay on Sky Television, Ferguson retreated from a conviction that the penalty award was fair and just to a more existentialist stance of "the referee gave a penalty". Even if video evidence had been available, the penalty might still have been given, for it looked so clear-cut that the referee, Chris Foy, would probably not have called for a TV replay.

Yet the continued protests of the Middlesbrough goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer - he is not a player given to disputation - should have sounded the warning bell, for the fact is that there was no contact whatsoever between the goalkeeper and United's Ronaldo.

"He's got a history of doing it," Southgate said, "and in the end it cost us the game. Our goalkeeper did everything to avoid him." Asked if he thought Ronaldo was a cheat, Southgate replied: "Yes, it's as simple as that."

Pressed into commenting further on the United winger's impressive contribution, Southgate became more splenetic: "I'm not interested in talking about him - he plays the way he wants to and that's up to him." The Middlesbrough manager, however, went on to admit: "In the balance of play, they were the better of the two teams."

However, the game had not started that way. The presence of Abel Xavier and his frequent forays down United's left flank caused a few heart-fluttering moments and pegged back Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. A bullet-like header from Xavier two minutes after Louis Saha's penalty goal might well have put the hosts back in the picture but for the stoutness of the upright. Indeed, Xavier's telling contribution was Middlesbrough's big positive on a night that underlined the class gap between themselves and United; a gap which had not been evident in last season's equivalent fixture.

Lee Cattermole emerged with the kind of game that made him a realistic contender for Scholes' crown, but he needed to keep it going for the full 90 minutes rather than the 25 he managed. Besides, even though Scholes was not at the top of his game, United had Darren Fletcher offering a significant contribution on the other side of the midfield. At last, Fletcher is beginning to look like the real thing rather than a reliable reserve who can prop up the team on insignificant occasions like the League Cup.

Although Ronaldo was booed by the home fans throughout, he stood head and shoulders above the rest, and that included Wayne Rooney. His frequent switches from right to left as he powered the ball directly towards goal produced frissons of fear for Middlesbrough fans and of excitement for United's travelling army. He was afraid of nothing and annoyed by much, not least George Boateng's attempts to protest eternal friendship after a particularly ugly tackle.

The big disappointment of Middlesbrough's evening had to be Stewart Downing. Although his exquisite centre, (following an even sweeter moment when he rode Gary Neville's tackle), eventually resulted in Jamie Morrison's well-drilled goal, Downing had a quiet evening and probably stayed too close to the byline for most of it.

Within two minutes of the equaliser, United swept forward and restored their lead with cool finishing. A complex move involving Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs seemed to have broken down before Ronaldo rebuilt it along the goal-line and laid on a crisp header for Fletcher to cap a good night for him.

Ferguson crisply summed up United's improvement in fixtures like this: "The team unit is getting stronger in their knowledge of one another." In particular, they have come to realise exactly what Cristiano Ronaldo can do for them, given enough of the ball.

Goals: Saha pen (19) 0-1; Morrison (66) 1-1; Fletcher (68) 1-2.

Middlesbrough: (3-5-2) Schwarzer; Huth, Woodgate (Morrison, 46), Pogatetz; Xavier (Parnaby, 88), Cattermole, Boateng, Downing, Taylor; Yakubu, Christie (Maccarone, 72). Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Arca.

Manchester United: (4-4-2) Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Heinze; Ronaldo (Brown, 86), Scholes, Giggs, Fletcher (O'Shea, 75); Rooney, Saha. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Evra, Carrick.

Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).

Booked: Middlesbrough Christie, Cattermole; Manchester United Scholes, Vidic, Saha.

Man of the match: Ronaldo.

Attendance: 31,238.