Man United survives Alves' scare

Afonso Alves' career with Boro had been all about embarrassing misses. But against Manchester United, the striker displayed a hitherto unseen deadliness with both feet, writes Louise Taylor.

The road to the Premier League title is frequently booby-trapped and Manchester United were forced to negotiate a particularly hazardous stretch as they passed through Teesside on April 6. As if playing in a swirling snowstorm was not sufficiently off-putting, Sir Alex Ferguson's side had to cope with an additional attacking blizzard from an exhilaratingly high-tempo Middlesbrough whose Brazilian striker Afonso Alves scored his first two goals in English football.

Throw in some technical area needle featuring a palpably tense Ferguson and Gareth Southgate indulging in a bout of mutual finger jabbing and shouting at the end and it is easy to imagine that United will not care to dwell on their lead over Chelsea at the top of the Premier League which was trimmed to three points.

Quite apart from showing a hitherto unseen deadliness with both feet, Alves, Boro's record �12m signing from Heerenveen, also high? lighted just how important Nemanja Vidic is to United. Ferguson's usually assured defence frequently looked alarmingly unstable in the absence of their injured centre-half and such woes were exacerbated when Rio Ferdinand limped off in the second half with a foot injury.

Initially, though, everything seemed to be going to plan for the visitors, whose impending visit to Stamford Bridge has now assumed amplified importance. United took an early lead shortly after Cristiano Ronaldo's 30-yard free-kick deflected off the Boro wall for a corner. With Southgate's defence failing to clear that dead ball, it was allowed to travel to the far side of the area for collection by Michael Carrick. Rolling it back into the six-yard box, the midfielder picked out the lurking Ronaldo who, eluding all markers, stabbed his 37th goal of an extraordinary season beyond Mark Schwarzer.

Until this game, Alves's career with Boro had been all about embarrassing misses, sliced shots and miscues but a couple of minutes before equalising he issued United's defence a warning with a vicious free-kick that dipped and swerved its way over the wall but was well saved by Edwin van der Sar. They failed to heed it and, when Gary O'Neil's floated cross-field pass from the right was adroitly flicked on by Jeremie Aliadiere, it fell for Alves to run on to. All that remained was for him to shoot low, left-footed, across Van der Sar and into the bottom corner from 15 yards.

United became increasingly frustrated and Wayne Rooney was booked for sliding in late on Schwarzer. Shortly after that Alves scored his second, right-footed this time. As United's backline appeared momentarily to doze off, George Boateng sent a long clearance, looping in Aliadiere's direction.

Once again the Frenchman headed it into Alves's path, leaving the Brazilian to curl a beautifully weighted shot past Van der Sar from just inside the box.

In endeavouring to recover from his lapse in concentration and to prevent that goal Ferdinand injured his left foot and 15 minutes later limped off. United's riposte was to prove that attack really is the best form of defence. Ji-Sung Park received a typically astute Ronaldo pass on the right and his low cross enabled the on-rushing Rooney to extend his right foot and, courtesy of a deflection off David Wheater's shin, level matters. Even so Tuncay Sanli could have won it at the end but, having skipped past Wes Brown, was denied by Van der Sar's bravery. Similar courage will be required in the coming weeks if Chelsea are to be kept at bay.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008 THE RESULTS

April 6: Everton 1 (Osman 56) bt Derby 0. Half-time: 0-0; Middlesbrough 2 (Alves 35 & 56) drew with Manchester United 2 (Ronaldo 10, Rooney 74). Half-time: 1-1.

April 5: Arsenal 1 (Bendtner 54) drew with Liverpool 1 (Crouch 42). Half-time: 0-1; Aston Villa 4 (Barry 9 & 60, Agbonlahor 56, Harewood 85) bt Bolton 0. Half-time: 1-0; Blackburn 1 (Pedersen 30) drew with Tottenham 1 (Berbatov 7). Half-time: 1-1; Fulham 1 (Healy 74) lost to Sunderland 3 (Collins 45, Chopra 54, Jones 76). Half-time: 0-1; Manchester City 0 lost to Chelsea 2 (Dunne o.g. 6, Kalou 53). Half-time: 0-1; Newcastle 3 (Martins 18, Owen 43, Viduka 58) bt Reading 0. Half-time: 2-0; Wigan 2 (Taylor 15 & 55) bt Birmingham 0. Half-time: 1-0.