Manchester United 2 Middlesbrough 3

Wednesday 11th February 2004
Old Trafford, Manchester

Manchester United dropped five points behind Arsenal in the battle to become Premiership champions. In a disastrous game for the Reds, they showed none f the usual solidity at the back, and they struggled to control the game.

What should have been a mere formality once again turned into farce. After battling bravely for the first half an hour to no avail, United began to come under pressure from a slick passing Boro side. Instead of hunting the ball back, United stupidly gave Boro time on the ball, and, though the goal that amounted from the possession was neither clinical nor spectacular, United still cannot afford to concede goals so cheaply.

The first Boro goal saw Howard divert a seemingly tame 30 yard shot by Boro's left back onto his cross-bar. The ball bounced back towards the edge of the six-yard box, where Juninho was the first to it. His diving header put the ball past a stranded and embarrassed Howard.

Juninho, Boro's 5'5" Brazilian striker, somehow managed to score a second header in the game. This time the team were equally guilty of not closing down the Boro players, allowing them to get a cross into the box, where the Brazilian beat Nicky Butt in the air and nodded the ball into the top corner of the net.

United fans around the world were probably, like me, distraught at the fact that the United defence who had conceded the least goals in the first half of the season had now conceded seven in three games.

Just before half-time Ruud Van Nistelrooy managed to poke the ball home after Saha chested it at his feet. His goal gave everyone hope that this game was not lost, not to mention saving the team from the dreaded Sir Alex "Hairdryer treatment".

Whatever Sir Alex did in the changing room instead we do not know. But it's fair to say that the team came out with renewed determination and inspiration for the second half. Most notably, Wes Brown the man who is supposed to fill-in for Rio was taken off after a dreadful first half performance. Sir Alex even chose to replace him with a midfielder: Phil Neville.

Twenty minutes into the second half, and after minutes of serious pressure on the Boro defence, Ryan Giggs was found in space by Ruud. Thankfully he managed to put the ball into the back of the net something that had eluded O'Shea moments earlier.

At two all, everyone expected United to win the game. They had chances to win, but blew them. The Joseph Desire Job struck for Boro. From 20 yards, perhaps Howard could have done better, but such is life.

United fought bravely for the last ten minutes, pressing forwards with urgency and boldness. With barely ten seconds to go, Diego Forlan, a late substitute, was allowed a free header two yards from goal. It was an easy chance. While everyone waited for the back of the net to bulge, the ball cannoned off the cross-bar, and Forlan was left looking Forlorn and desperate for forgiveness from his team-mates. The final whistle blew, and United had possibly blown their chances of defending their crown.

Man Utd: Howard, O'Shea, Brown (Phil Neville 45), Silvestre, Fortune, Kleberson (Ronaldo 63), Scholes, Butt (Forlan 87), Giggs, van Nistelrooy, Saha.

Subs Not Used: Carroll, Fletcher. Booked: Silvestre.

Middlesbrough: Schwarzer, Mills, Riggott, Southgate, Queudrue, Mendieta (Parnaby 72), Doriva, Zenden, Downing, Job, Juninho Paulista (Cooper 90).

Subs Not Used: Jones, Maccarone, Nemeth. Booked: Mills.

Attendance: 67,346

Referee: P Durkin (Dorset)