Manchester United 2 Middlesbrough 3
THE TITANIC was a real life disaster of recent memory, rather than a film, the last time Middlesbrough succeeded at Old Trafford. Their 3-0 victory in January 1930 came in a month of cataclysmic proportions for Manchester United, who also lost at home to Swindon Town of the Third Division South in the FA Cup.
No one expects a spell of similar upsets, or do we? On a day of reunions, one was notable for its absence: Manchester United's increasingly distant touch with defensive solidarity. Much more of this and ambitions, at home and abroad, will come to nothing.
Twenty-one goals have been conceded in their last 10 matches and, but for their qualification for the knockout phase of the European Cup, the last four weeks would have been notable only for unremitting mediocrity. The entertainment is glorious, it is just the results that are problem. They have won only once now since November 14.
Forget the rousing finale and treat the scoreline as an imposter because, for an hour, supposedly the best team in England were overwhelmingly outplayed. Middlesbrough were splendid, United simply dreadful.
Nowhere was the contrast more exposed than in the home penalty area, where Hamilton Ricard and Brian Deane reduced Gary Neville and Ronny Johnsen to rubble. "Individual errors," was Jim Ryan's succinct assessment, before adding enigmatically: "It is a worry. We will have to address it again."
The fact that Ryan, the reserve team coach, was addressing the media was one symptom of the mitigating circumstances that could be paraded in defence of the defence. Jaap Stam was missing with an ankle injury but, more importantly, Alex Ferguson was absent because of a family bereavement.
You can only imagine the volcanic activity on the touchline if the United manager had been present as Middlesbrough went 3-0 up with goals from Ricard, Dean Gordon and Deane. But it was his selection that performed so badly, so perhaps little would have changed. Just the language in the dressing-room.
It was not hard to find paradoxes. Former United players Bryan Robson and Viv Anderson were directing operations from the visiting bench while Gary Pallister, who was a huge, mobile obstacle at Old Trafford for nine seasons, was magnificent in the Middlesbrough defence.
"I think he should still be playing for England," Robson said of Pallister and, while some might raise eyebrows at that, the giant centre-back could certainly be enrolled into the nation's diplomatic service, given his comments about United's wretched defending.
"They've had a few injuries," he said, "they've never really had a settled back four, and that always causes problems. Steve [Bruce] and myself found out we were all over the place when we weren't playing regularly. If you can't get a settled partnership, it's difficult. Obviously they want to get their two best players at the back and have a partnership which will last as long as possible."
On the assumption there was no defence, Ryan abandoned it altogether in a death-or-glory charge at the finish and it almost yielded a point. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came on for Phil Neville and, more contentiously, Paul Scholes replaced David Beckham.
The England midfielder had redeemed an undistinguished performance that culminated in a booking after an ugly lunge at Ricard with a cross that led to Nicky Butt's goal.
And he followed that up with a similar arc of precision that Ryan Giggs ought to have headed in. But Ryan was fearful that the short fuse was burning, and, when he looked for a way to introduce Scholes, Beckham was an obvious choice.
The change almost had the required effect, too, because Scholes made the score 3-2 after 70 minutes and was to the fore in the mayhem that caused Mark Schwarzer to clear straight to Andy Cole with four minutes remaining.
The United striker's shot was partially blocked by the Boro goalkeeper, but was still heading for goal when Steve Vickers cleared it over his own bar.
Boro survived and their supporters could conclude the match by singing "We're going to win the League". They will not, their squad is too shallow, but on this evidence neither will United, whose last clean sheet was on November 8.
Urgent action is required.
Goals: Ricard (23) 0-1; Gordon (31) 0-2; Deane (59) 0-3; Butt (62) 1- 3; Scholes (70) 2-3.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; P Neville (Solskjaer, 78), Johnsen, G Neville, Irwin; Beckham (Scholes, 63), Keane, Butt, Giggs; Sheringham, Cole. Substitutes not used: Blomqvist, Brown, Van der Gouw (gk).
Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Schwarzer; Cooper, Vickers, Pallister; Festa, Mustoe (Moore, 71), Maddison (Beck, 82), Townsend, Gordon; Deane, Ricard. Substitutes not used: Blackmore, Stockdale, Roberts (gk).
Referee: G Willard (Worthing).
Bookings: Manchester Utd: Beckham; Middlesbrough: Festa.
Man of the match: Ricard.
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