On the ground where they won the Premier League title on the last day of the 1995-96 season, Manchester United yesterday took a giant stride towards securing another one, the third in succession. They are unlikely to leave it quite as late this time, whatever Liverpool, now six points in arrears, may have to say about matters, starting against Newcastle today.
United have to play Manchester City and Arsenal at home, plus Wigan and Hull away. After Newcastle's visit to Anfield, their despised Merseyside rivals go to West Ham and West Bromwich Albion before finishing at home to Tottenham.
It was champions against boys here, and the boys' brigade may have to do their growing up in the Football League. Even if this fixture was a bonus ball for them, 25 goals in 35 games does not augur well for winning two of the remaining three. Nor does giving Ben Foster in the visitors' goal one save to make all afternoon.
Foster was one of half-a-dozen fresh players brought in to the team in between the two legs of the Champions' League semi-final against Arsenal. The schedule is a demanding one but Sir Alex Ferguson need hardly have worried about being forced to play at lunchtime after Wednesday's exertions in the first leg. Once Ji-Sung Park had added a second goal after 51 minutes to Ryan Giggs's, the manager was able to take off three players and the others could stroll through the remaining period.
"I thought it was a very good performance," Ferguson said. "They all worked their socks off. It looked a difficult game, the position Middlesbrough are in. But once we got hold of the ball, we got it together." As for his 11th title and the club's 18th: "It's as big step forward, with only four games to go."
In striving once more to find the balance between resting players and gaining points, United left Cristiano Ronaldo and, initially, Carlos Tevez in the padded seats, while giving Edwin van der Sar, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher a day off. Rio Ferdinand was also missing after injuring a rib in midweek, though he may conceivably be back for the Emirates on Tuesday. The old guard of Paul Scholes and Giggs were restored to midfield, Park supplying the energy normally provided by Fletcher.
Federico Macheda, still only 17, worked hard and produced some good movement as well as collecting a yellow card in his 55-minute stint before making way for Tevez; whether any English club should have been allowed to lure him from Lazio in his home city at such a young age is a debate for another day. Foster did whatever was required of him with high competence, although as it was Middlesbrough in opposition, that did not amount to much. Further forward, Wayne Rooney was excellent again out on the left, and Giggs wound the clock back.
Three times in the first quarter of the game, Rooney cut in from the touchline and shot: twice wide, once too high. In the 24th minute he won a corner with a cross from the same position and before it was properly cleared, set up a goal. Opting for a pass this time he found Nemanja Vidic, who had ventured forward for the corner and stayed there. The Serb attempted a low centre that eluded Macheda and his marker Matthew Bates, falling nicely for Giggs to collect and drive left-footed just inside a post. Surprisingly, it was only his fourth goal of the campaign in all competitions.
"You need to score first against a side of that quality," Gareth Southgate observed. Boro had only once threatened to do so, after a good piece of refereeing. Although Macheda clearly fouled Tony McMahon, Mark Halsey delayed long enough to see what transpired and waved play on as Marlon King supplied Jérémie Aliadière for a shot that Foster managed to block with a foot. It would prove his only save of the afternoon.
Scholes might have knocked in a hat-trick on his own in the first 45 minutes, but kept pulling right-footed shots across goal. The third one, a minute before half-time, was made possible when Brad Jones's short clearance towards Justin Hoyte was intercepted by Dimitar Berbatov and laid inside for Scholes to drive wide again.
Five minutes into the second half, Southgate had just told two attacking substitutes to get stripped when the need for them became even more paramount as United scored a second goal. Rooney was at the heart of things again, taking the ball from Giggs, spotting Park's smart run into the penalty area and playing a sweet reverse pass for him to sweep low past Jones in Boro's goal.
That brought United's goal difference level with Liverpool's and they could have improved it further. Rooney, giving McMahon a bewildering 90 minutes, came inside again to curl a shot wide of the far post and Tevez, as tenacious as ever, was denied by one of David Wheater's brave blocks. Afonso Alves, one of Boro's three substitutes, made one switchback run through the middle without managing a shot and was then halted by Jonny Evans's smart tackle as the Riverside's biggest crowd of the season began to drift away. "We kept probing and we had a couple of half-chances," was as positive an assessment as Southgate could make.
"United have the points and the momentum," he said of the position at the top of the table. Middlesbrough, sadly, have neither.
Referee: Mark Halsey
Man of the match: Giggs
Match rating: 6/10