Boksic salutes his strike
Manchester Utd 0-1 Middlesbrough
Tim Hobbs reporting
Alen Boksic blew the title race wide open as his solitary strike saw Steve McClaren's Middlesbrough sink the
champions. The Croatia international netted just nine minutes in to prevent Manchester United moving four points clear at thetop of the Premiership on a day when Arsenal were otherwise engaged in the FA Cup.
United, who forced just one save from Mark Schwarzer, still have a one-point cushion over their rivals, but will seethis as the defining moment if they fail to take the title for the fourth season in succession. The Gunners, ominouslyfor Old Trafford, now have two games in hand.
Middlesbrough of course ended United's own hopes of a domestic double by knocking them out of the FA Cup and if they do prove to be the side that scuppers the title challenge, McClaren can look back with great satisfaction at theway he has matched his old mentor Sir Alex Ferguson.
Boro set their stall out to defend in numbers, but with Boksic the focal point up front and Benito Carbone and NoelWhelan flodding forward willingly down either channel, had the audacity to snatch the lead - with a helping handfrom Juan Sebastian Veron.
The £28million man, preferred to Paul Scholes in the engine room, darkened an already dreary display when he
was caught in possession by Carbone and with the United defenders caught off-gauard, the Italian lifted a precise
ball to the back post for Boksic to stab home from eight yards.
Usually such upstarts are swept aside with minimum fuss by the red machine, but they had not bargained for the
defensive heroics of England hopefuls Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu and a collective off-day that left everyone connected with United pulling their hair out with sheer frustration.
Yet it could have been worse. Fabien Barthez had to get down well and keep out another Boksic effort at his near post, while he should have doubled his tally after being picked out again by strike partner Carbone.
The Italian is playing for a permanent deal at the Riverside and could not have picked his timing better, as his lively
touches and link play overshadowed the man who should have been alongside Boksic, Diego Forlan.
The Uruguayan opted for Old Trafford instead and did little to rub McClaren's nose in it with a performance that
was patchy at best, and way below the standards he set in the Champions League in midweek.
Ruud van Nistelrooy fared little better against Ehiogu and Southgate, but came within a whisker of levelling as his
smart shot on the turn from a Forlan cross shaved the outside of a post. Ryan Giggs, who promised much but ultimately produced little, then dragged a disappointing effort wide as United moved in for the kill, but for once were found wanting at the crucial time.David Beckham summed up the frustration when he was booked for venting his fury at a linesman, while Ferguson stormed off at the break with the officials again on the receiving end.
Even then, everyone expected his fury to spark a second-half onslaught and although United dominated and pinned Boro back on the edge of their own box, they failed to find a way through a compact rearguard relishing the battle and protected by a prowling Paul Ince, who shrugged off constant jeering with a grizzly display.
Mikael Silvestre and van Nistelrooy went into the book as United pushed for the equaliser, only to see their
promising build-up blighted by some wretched final balls and brave Boro defending.
Van Nistelrooy sent one of three towering headers ballooning over the top before Fergie threw on Scholes to shakehis side up, at the expense of Veron, whose parting shot was a wild 30-yarder that threatened the heads of anyUnited fans daring to stand up.
But even Scholes could not spark United into life. Van Nistelrooy failed to finish off another Beckham centre, GaryNeville looped a header onto the top of the net and Ehiogu hacked clear on two occasions.
The only time United did get a clear sight on goal they found Schwarzer determined to take a clean sheet away withhim, the giant Aussie racing off his line and making a brilliant block as van Nistelrooy controlled a Beckham ball inand rifled goalwards on the turn.
Heads were in hands by now, but Boro refused to crumble. Southgate and Ehioug stood firm, Carbone was a
intermittant menace and Robbie Mustoe joined Ince in manning the barracks and keeping any threat at bay.
Even Boksic, at 32, ran until the end, finding an extra yard on the back of his ninth goal of the season. A goal that allbut expelled the threat of relegation from the Riverside, but one that could be even more important to events at theother end of the table.
Man Utd: Barthez, Gary Neville, Johnsen, Blanc, Silvestre, Beckham, Butt, Veron (Scholes 58), Giggs, van Nistelrooy,
Forlan (Fortune 82).
Subs Not Used: Carroll, Phil Neville, O'Shea.
Booked: Beckham, Veron, Silvestre, van Nistelrooy.
Middlesbrough: Schwarzer, Stockdale, Ehiogu, Southgate, Queudrue, Greening (Wilkshire 21), Ince, Mustoe, Whelan,
Boksic (Windass 79), Carbone.
Subs Not Used: Crossley, Nemeth, Gavin.
Booked: Queudrue, Ince.
Ref: S Bennett (Kent)