Hignett draws the United sting

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The Independent Online
Middlesbrough 2

Ravanelli 27, Hignett 83 pen

Manchester United 2

Keane 17, May 72

Attendance: 30,063

Middlesbrough may, as Mrs Emerson suggests, be "a strange, terrible place," but, to Manchester United, it will always be a home from home. While Mrs Em doubtless sunned herself in Rio yesterday, her suspended other half sat shivering at the Riverside as the champions of England came within eight minutes of reacquainting themselves with the glow triumph on "foreign" fields can bring.

Manchester United lifted the Premiership trophy on their only previous visit to the home of the new age Boro. On that occasion, David May set them on the victory road with his first goal for the club. Yesterday, the central defender's 73rd minute header looked set to secure United's first league win away from Old Trafford since their 4-0 trashing of Leeds on 7 September. It gave Alex Ferguson's reshuffled side a two-one platform after Roy Keane's goal and Fabrizio Ravanelli's equaliser in the first half.

Middlesbrough may have their troubles, not least with their foreign legionnaires, but their spirited play deserved reward yesterday and they duly claimed it with the point Craig Hignett's 82nd minute penalty earned. It was a hotly-disputed award, after Mikkel Beck blasted the ball into a defensive wall erected on the six-yard line. Paul Scholes clearly handled, although it remained open to debate whether intent was involved.

It was ironic that the man who decided it was happened to be Alan Wilkie, the referee who gave United their contentious penalty in the Manchester derby two years ago and who sent off Eric Cantona at Selhurst Park. After the disputes Hignett made sure Bryan Robson, his boss and Ferguson's former captain, went home happy.

Ferguson's line-up bore little resemblance to the one that took the field at Old Trafford last Wednesday, let alone the one that secured the championship on Teesside six months ago. Re-juvenation sprang to mind at first glance, with teenagers Ben Thornley and John O'Kane and 22-year-old Michael Clegg all starting their first Premiership game. But the trio had been called up to fill in for casualties from their midweek European encounter. Ole Solskjaer was also on the injured list, in addition to Ryan Giggs and the brothers Neville, creating the attacking vacancy Paul Scholes filled.

The young debutants initially enjoyed a smooth introduction as United pushed the ball around with poise and purpose. There were a couple of close calls for the champions, however, before they gained tangible reward. Juninho provided the threat on both occasions, failing to control the ball when Craig Fleming found him unmarked in the Boro goalmouth, and then driving narrowly wide.

Keane's goal, after 17 minutes, could not have been more finely crafted. Eric Cantona lofted a ball from the left to the right angle of the six yard box, where David Beckham directed a first-time volley into the middle and Keane beat Gary Walsh with a firmly-executed header.

Middlesbrough's response was swift. Ravanelli had already fired a warning shot, too close for Peter Schmeichel's comfort, before his 15th goal in England drew Boro level after 26 minutes. The low shot with which the Italian scored, from the right edge of United's box, was a cleanly-struck opportunist effort, courtesy not only of Juninho's through-ball but of Mikkel Beck's perceptive dummy run.

After raising his red-gloved hands in celebration, Ravanelli buried his head in them after watching Schmeichel acrobatically parry a more clear- cut effort. Keane side-footed wide at the other end as the contest assumed a well-balanced symmetry. A point apiece was a just outcome.

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