Middlesbrough 0 Man Utd 1

Sunday 28th December 2003
Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough

Manchester United moved four points clear at the top of the Premiership table after a convincing victory over Middlesbrough. United completely controlled the game despite having youngster Darren Fletcher sent off with half-an-hour to go.

Fletcher was sent off for making two innocuous fouls during the game. The first yellow card was for a lazy shirt-tug which didn't even impede the opposing player. The second yellow card was also undeserved TV replays showed that there was no contact between Fletcher and the sprawling Boro player. Fans could tell that the referee Messias was trying to make a name for himself by punishing the biggest team in football.

Luckily for Messias, United still clinched the three points, and he was saved from the wrath of Sir Alex who was undoubtedly very unhappy with the referees performance. Messias' biggest error was not, perhaps, playing by the letter of the law and sending off Fletcher, but that he didn't play by the same rule-book for the full 90 minutes. Mills, for one, got let off lightly after a last ditch lunge at Giggs.

United were, however, lucky to take the lead in the 14th minute when Quinton Fortune's shot cannoned in after taking a wicked deflection off Boro defender Danny Mills, but had looked the better side. Once again, United looked good on the ball, kept possession well, and outplayed the opposition. Typically, they were also wasteful in front of goal but I suppose they cannot be expected to score with every chance they create!

Boro had the odd attacking scurry into the United half, but these were generally combated by the United defence long before they had chances to shoot. Ferdinand was at his best, reading every move made by Boro, and managing to get to the ball first to snuff out any dangers. Indeed, Ferguson has found in Silvestre and Ferdinand a strong defensive partnership. What's more, they are both young players, and could both be playing for United in ten years time, so the future looks bright. Particularly when you consider that Howard and O'Shea are both under 25 too.

United looked arguably the better team as they began the second half. Scholes should have scored United's second to secure the victory, but his thunderbolt of a shot was palmed onto the cross-bar by the fortunate Boro keeper. Ten minutes later, Fletcher was off, and the boot appeared to be on the other foot with Boro doing most of the attacking, and United looking increasingly unlikely to score. When Van Nistelrooy was taken off for Nicky Butt, a strong defensive player, it was obvious that Sir Alex was not trying to urge his team to score again, but merely to protect the one goal lead they already had.

Boro attacked and attacked, but somehow United always had a man in the right place to block a shot, or to make a tackle. Boro failed to use their one-man advantage to create a good enough chance for their misfiring strikers to score from, and although there was a tense ending to the game, United's great defence had posted another shut-out, and added another three points to their tally.

Middlesbrough: Schwarzer, Queudrue (Parnaby 19), Mills, Southgate, Ehiogu, Zenden, Mendieta, Greening (Maccarone 73), Boateng, Juninho, Ricketts, Parnaby (Downing 73). Subs Not Used: Jones, Riggott.

Booked: Mills, Boateng, Juninho

Man Utd: Howard, Gary Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Fortune, Fletcher, Phil Neville, Keane, Giggs, Scholes, Van Nistelrooy (Butt 84).

Subs Not Used: Carroll, Brown, Kleberson, Forlan.

Sent off: Fletcher (65).

Booked: Fletcher, Phil Neville.

Attendance: 34,738.

Referee: M Messias (N Yorkshire)