There is a terrible air of gloom around the North East at the moment. It is hardly St. Tropez at the best of times but all four of their major teams are in serious trouble. The fans of the region deserve much better than what has been served up for them this season. I always expect one of the teams in the bottom three to put together a Herculean run of results in the last few games and save themselves. It has happened enough times for this expectation to be reasonable. See West Hams controversial late run or even Brian Robson's West Brom for further reference. What is more, seasoned United watchers, for the last few years, have circled this game on the fixture list and written the word banana-skin next to it.
Ferguson has done an unbelievable job of rotating the squad this season. I expected Ronaldo to be left out, not just because of the game against Arsenal but because he seems to needle this club more than any other. This would not be a good time for him to get injured. Besides, the only completely undroppable player we have at the moment is Wayne Rooney. Contrast this to our opponents fortunes and you will note that Stuart Downing has started every single one of their league fixtures this season. Must have been tough work for the bloke.
The manager had complained about the early kick-off but fortunately it was the men in red who still seemed blurry eyed. I was intrigued to see how the partnership between Berbatov and Macheda might work but was alas pretty disappointed. I have tried to hold back the tide of negative opinion about the Bulgarian. I think he holds the ball up superbly and throughout December and January he made several very important contributions. Dare I say it, he also speaks to the media an awful lot less than Mr. Tevez does. Up here at the Riverside though, Berbatov did not light the blue touch paper. He gave the ball away with his first couple of touches and then seemed to drift off. Shame, I am sure he still has a lot to offer.
Middlesbrough huffed and puffed a little in the early stages but our defence seemed to have the making of them and the game started to remind me of quite a few others this season. We were in control, did not overexpend energy and just waited for our moment to strike. We have not contributed to the national stockpile of adrenalin as much as United teams of yesteryear. A few years ago it seemed as if our players used to jump down rigging with a cutlass in their teeth before the start of play. Now there is an icy calm and a sense of getting the job done.
Ticking off his 801st day of work well done was Mr. Ryan Giggs. His finish showed enduring class and the goalie didn't even have the chance to move. The Boro centre backs didn't seem to bothered about stopping him and if you watch the replay closely you can catch a glimpse of Giggsy checking his watch before deciding where to place the ball. The game was over.
The second goal is a good example of why I am in love with this game. Rooney's first touch and vision for the through ball were utterly inspiring and Park's finish was as clinical as any you will see in the league. It was also great that the move was started by Macheda and on this form Rooney must be the most fearsome opponent on the planet.
Boro are one of the few clubs left in this league who I consider the be run properly. Their chairman is a local boy done good who sticks with his managers and tries to do things the right way. The days of Ravanelli and Juninho are behind them but, despite the utter dourness of the Riverside and our recent run-ins, they are a good part of English football. It was heartening to see a banner in their stand saying WE SHALL OVERCOME. Somebody needs to tell their players that.
Thoughts on the Arsenal tie:
As the 95/96 season came to its nerve-jangling climax somebody remarked at half time of the game at St. James Park that United had been "murdered nil nil". I feel a sense of deja vu here. We outfought, outclassed and outran the Gunners but only have a one goal lead to show for it. Newcastle (the murderers of quote past) went on to lose that game. Not for a second would I directly compare this United team with that Geordie choke machine but the precedent is there.
If Arsenal get their tip-tappy game going they are capable of scoring many a goal and teams that have gone for our throats this season, shamed as I am to say it, have done alright for themselves. I think we will have enough in the tank but beware an early Arsenal goal.