After Middlesbrough won 3-2 at Old Trafford in December 1998, Bernie Slaven, a stalwart at Ayresome Park in the days when money was tighter than the shorts on Teesside, was so amazed he promised to bare his backside in the window of a local department store. Six years on there was a similar score but this time it was Manchester United who were left exposed at the rear.
If Arsène Wenger could claim that the loss of Sol Campbell undermined Arsenal's grip on the title last season, then Rio Ferdinand's suspension might be the undoing of Manchester United. In the three-and-a-half games since he limped off at Molineux, United have conceded nine times and looked at times horribly uncomfortable.
Last night at Old Trafford there was little effective thought between the three men Ferguson employed in the heart of defence - Wes Brown was replaced at half time by Phil Neville to little obvious effect.
United's defending was as threadbare as it had been against Southampton and Everton but this time it was punished with defeat. In the fourth minute of stoppage time Paul Durkin had somehow managed to dredge up, Diego Forlan drove a header against the crossbar; on another night it would have been a typical, late equaliser.
"We have lost soft goals and that is the concern," Ferguson said. "If we keep doing that, we can say goodbye to the league. It was slack defending and showed signs of nervousness." The nerves are not just confined to the defence. Arsenal's lead is five points and shows every sign of growing. On a day when John Magnier increased his stake at Old Trafford by £22m, this was a bad night to lose. By taking on the club's largest shareholder in the courts, Ferguson has picked a fight he is unlikely to win and cannot control. Yesterday evening, he lost his grip on territory more familiar to him.
There were, however, no large-scale protests against Magnier; the gathering outside Old Trafford's East Stand was to mark something far more enduring and poignant, the anniversary of the Munich disaster 46 years before. It contrasted neatly with the huge banners draped nearby, advertising a special edition of Who Wants to be a Millionaire for Manchester United fans.
If it was meant to inspire, it did not. For the opening 44 minutes Manchester United were as outplayed as they have been at Old Trafford since Arsenal captured the championship here in May 2002. By the end of the half, they were 2-1 down and fortunate not to be a man down when Paul Scholes punched Doriva in the face yards from Durkin, who fortunately for the England midfielder was unsighted.
Middlesbrough's opening goals were both scored by Juninho. The first came from nowhere; an ambitious drive from Franck Queudrue that Tim Howard spooned on to the crossbar allowing the Brazilian to nod in the ricochet. If that gave the champions pause for thought, the fact that four minutes later Juninho, the smallest man on the pitch, scored from a free header would have left their manager choking.
United were contemplating a move for Gareth Southgate during last month's transfer window and as a short-term replacement, the Middlesbrough captain could probably not have been bettered, certainly not from the way he dispossessed Ryan Giggs in full flight as the Welshman prepared to shoot or by the block on the line from John O'Shea when the scores were locked at 2-2.
That Ruud van Nistelrooy scored with the last move of the first half appeared to be the decisive moment, not least to Steve McClaren on the away bench. The Middlesbrough manager, who has now beaten his mentor four times since leaving Old Trafford, thought Boro had to go in two-up at the interval to have a real chance given the storm that would arrive on the restart. And when Giggs levelled there appeared only one winner and they wore red.
This was, however, to reckon without Middlesbrough's resilience and Manchester United's propensity to commit defensive errors. With 10 minutes remaining, Joseph-Desiré Job turned his marker and drilled a shot home from the edge of the box. "To win here you need to ride your luck and have to have the decisions go your way," McClaren said. "But you also need to play very well and we did."
Manchester United (4-4-2): Howard 5; O'Shea 4, Brown 3 (P Neville 4, h-t), Silvestre 6, Fortune 5; Kleberson 4 (Ronaldo 4, 63), Butt 5 (Forlan, 87), Scholes 6, Giggs 7; Saha 5, Van Nistelrooy 7. Substitutes not used: Carroll (gk), Fletcher.
Middlesbrough (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer 5; Mills 6, Riggott 6, Southgate 8, Queudrue 6; Mendieta 5 (Parnaby 5, 72), Doriva 4, Zenden 6, Downing 7; Juninho 8; Job 6. Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Maccarone, Cooper, Nemeth.
Referee: P Durkin (Portland) 7.
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