The year 2008 has been good to United. And while this may not have been the most glamorous way to round it all off, it was a wholly one-sided victory which suggests that trophies are very much there to be won in 2009.
United ended the match just shy of 30 attempts on goal, compared with half a dozen half-chances for Middlesbrough, who held on until the second half, but were merely delaying the inevitable.
Dimitar Berbatov’s poked volley earned the breakthrough with 20 minutes to go in a match that saw enough chances to win several football matches - which may be of slight concern to Sir Alex. Most importantly, however, United pecked away at Liverpool’s lead, which now stands at seven points, with two games in hand.
Sir Alex, as expected at this time of year, shuffled his pack. Rafael came in for Gary Neville, Michael Carrick replaced Paul Scholes, Ji-sung Park stepped in for Ryan Giggs and Dimitar Berbatov was favoured over United’s match-winner three days earlier at the Britannia Stadium, Carlos Tevez, who was rested completely.
The Reds started the night three matches behind the title rivals, but an imposing ten-point deficit on league leaders Liverpool, who put five past Newcastle at the weekend. United’s task, therefore, was laid out in simple terms – win, no matter in what fashion – but it’s rarely that straightforward against a Middlesbrough team with a penchant for raising their game against the Reds.
The Christmas period has been relatively kind to United, with Liverpool and Chelsea both dropping points while the Reds were away conquering the world. And the determination to follow-up a hard-fought 1-0 win over Stoke was clearly evident in the opening moments of a chilly late December encounter at Old Trafford.
Rooney tested Ross Turnbull’s resolve after just five