Manchester United are back on a run again. After those nine wins in a row it is now two defeats in succession for Sir Alex Ferguson's side. The setback they suffered at Ewood Park last Sunday gathered momentum at the Riverside yesterday as Steve McClaren struck another blow against his former employers.
Sir Alex was undone by his former assistant twice last season – in an FA Cup fourth-round tie at the Riverside and in a Premiership match at Old Trafford in March. The latter defeat proved a vital one for United in the title race and yesterday's loss has left them seven points behind Arsenal in this season's battle for the Premiership.
The deficit is far from irretrievable, but the worrying thing for United and for their manager yesterday was the rust that was evident in their defence. Laurent Blanc endured a particularly uncomfortable afternoon against a mobile Boro front line. All three of Middlesbrough's forwards – Alen Boksic, Szilard Nemeth and Joseph-Désiré Job – finished on the scoresheet. United finished with Rio Ferdinand alongside Ruud van Nistelrooy as a second centre-forward.
"When you're trying to claw something back, it's always worth a risk," Sir Alex reflected. "Three-one's a bad scoreline. We had a lot of possession in the first-half but we didn't have the concentration to capitalise on it." Indeed, United tested Mark Schwarzer just once before the interval, John O'Shea forcing a diving save from Boro's Australian goalkeeper.
United swept forward with purpose throughout the half, only to run into a brick wall of a Boro defence. The deployment of Mark Wilson, an Old Trafford old boy, as a shadow for Paul Scholes helped to stifle United's creative endeavour.
Boro lacked a cutting edge of their own – until half-time approached. Boksic should have broken the deadlock in the 39th minute but when Jonathan Greening's ball put him clear of the United defence his low shot smacked off the legs of Fabien Barthez.
The home crowd groaned in despair, but five minutes later the Riverside was roaring its approval as Boksic doubled his goal tally for the season. It was a brilliantly worked goal from Middlesbrough's perspective, a poorly conceded one from United's. It started with Franck Queudrue cutting out a cross-field ball from Juan Sebastian Veron and charging unchallenged from his left-back station to the edge of the United area, where he slipped a low pass through for Boksic, who flicked a scoring shot over the advancing Barthez with the outside of his left boot.
Three minutes into the second-half it was 2-0. Nemeth drifted past Blanc and slipped the ball around O'Shea on the right edge of the United penalty area and cracked a right-foot drive past Barthez into the far corner of the net.
The fight-back was not long in coming. On the hour mark Scholes fed the ball out to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on the right and the Norwegian's ball to the near post was turned in first-time by Ryan Giggs.
The arrival of David Beckham – a 72nd-minute addition to a team which featured Roy Keane in a starting role for the first time since August – added to United's attacking momentum. The England captain had a free-kick and a sweeping shot deflected wide. Van Nistelrooy also had a penalty claim turned down, after falling under a challenge from Ugo Ehiogu.
It all came to naught, though. With five minutes to play, Job headed the ball out to Géremi on the right. His cross was met by Massimo Maccarone, who nodded the ball down for Job to finish a highly-impressive Boxing Day job for Boro. "What a performance," McClaren proclaimed. "I thought the boys were magnificent today. I couldn't fault any one of them." His old boss could not quite say the same.
Middlesbrough (4-3-1-2): Schwarzer 7; Parnaby 7, Southgate 8, Ehiogu 8, Queudrue 7; Géremi 6, Wilson 7, Greening 6; Job 7; Nemeth 8 (Maccarone, 83), Boksic 7 (Wilkshire 6, 64). Substitutes not used: Crossley (gk), Vidmar, Windass.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Barthez 6; G Neville 5 (Beckham 7, 72), Blanc 4, Brown 6, O'Shea 5 (Ferdinand, 83); Solskjaer 6, Veron 5, Keane 5, Giggs 5; Scholes 5, Van Nistelrooy 5. Substitutes not used: Ricardo (gk), P Neville, Forlan.
Referee: G Barber (Tring) 6.
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