It’s a full house at Middlesbrough‘s Riverside Stadium as former Alex Ferguson assistant Steve McClaren, now in charge here in the North East for four years, hopes to continue Middlesbrough’s good run of results against his former boss. Sir Alex in turn will be hoping Manchester United start a good run of form, knowing that his season, and possibly his career, depend on the next nine days.
Middlesbrough centre-backs Gareth Southgate (groin) and Ugo Ehiogu (knee) are both out injured but Franck Queudrue, Emanuel Pogagtetz and Matthew Bates all return to the team. Middlesbrough: Schwarzer, Bates, Riggott, Queudrue, Parnaby, Boateng, Mendieta, Rochemback, Pogatetz, Hasselbaink, Yakubu. Subs: Jones, Nemeth, Doriva, Morrison, Viduka
Manchester United’s Wes Brown and Kieran Richardson return to the squad but Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Gabriel Heinze, Quinton Fortune, Gary Neville and Louis Saha are all still unfit. Man Utd : Van der Sar, Bardsley, Ferdinand, O’Shea, Silvestre, Fletcher, Smith, Scholes, Park, Rooney, van Nistelrooy. Subs: Howard, Brown, Ronaldo, Richardson, Rossi
Middlesbrough get things going and it’s hammer blows to the United heart straightaway as Gaizka Mendieta collects a long crossfield ball outside the Reds’ penalty area and with barely a glance slams a rocket into the back of the net, it’s GOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAALLL and 1-0 to Middlesbrough with only two minutes gone. Game on!
Unfortunately for United, the home side are now filled with self belief and contesting every ball. Sir Alex’ cautious 4-4-1-1 formation isn’t built for buccaneering and with Park as the only real wide player, the Red Devils are finding midfield control impossible.
Suddenly, in the 24th minute, it gets worse; Mendieta, helping out in defence, sends a long visionary pass deep into United territory where Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink makes no mistake from close range and it’s GOOOOOOAAAALLL and 2-0 to Middlesbrough.
It’s bedlam in the Riverside and things are looking grim for the Manchester men. There seems scant prospect of one of those miraculous comebacks which the United fans once took for granted as Middlesbrough seem to have total control and Mendieta is proving the master of midfield.
It’s almost half time, offering a chance to re-group for United, when events take a turn for the even worse. Kieron Richardson, on as a tactical change for Bardsley, brings down Stuart Parnaby in the United area and Aiyegbeni Yakubu makes easy work of the penalty, sending Van der Sar the wrong way, so it’s another GOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLL and now 3-0 to Middlesbrough.
As the referee mercifully brings the first half to a close, the words “Sir Alex” and “hairdryer treatment” spring to mind as the United players trudge towards the dressing room.
Fifteen minutes later, United get the second half started playing 4-3-3 now but there’s still no sign of winger Cristiano Ronaldo, who would surely help unlock this tight defensive unit. Middlesbrough look determined to continue their good work and not simply defend the lead.
For all their good passing and not for want of trying to get forward, United are getting nothing but scrappy little chances with little real threat to Mark Schwarzer in the ‘Boro goal and the danger of a swift counter attack is continuous and real as the home team grow in confidence.
Ronaldo comes on for Manchester with only thirty minutes remaining, but replaces Park, still leaving United with only one wide guy. Predictably, this proves too little too late and further hurt is caused in the 77th minute when Yakuba brushes past the ineffectual Ferdinand and squares the ball to that man Mendieta who shoots rightfooted into the bottom corner for another easy GOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAL and 4-0.
Just before the end of this shoddy performance by the team expected to lead the Chelsea chase, the hugely disappointing Rio Ferdinand is taken off by Ferguson and replaced by the welcome return of long term injury victim Wes Brown. Then, in the second minute of added time, a further crumb of comfort comes Manchester’s way when they become the first ever team to score one thousand Premiership goals as a Paul Scholes corner is met by a bullet header from Cristiano Ronaldo who scores a great consolation GOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAL to make the final score a well-deserved 4-1 to Middlesbrough.