United is almost there

Published : May 09, 2009 00:00 IST

Veteran Ryan Giggs played his 800th game in midweek, and celebrated his 801st with the goal that set united on its way to a victory against Middlesbrough that will almost certainly ensure that an 11th Premier League medal is added to his collection, wriets Paul Wilson

Ryan Giggs no longer starts enough games to be an obvious choice for PFA Player of the Year, but as Sir Alex Ferguson has just said, you won't find many professional footballers who begrudge him the honour. Manchester United's captain for the day could easily win next year's award at this rate. Only the fact that he will not be allowed to play Middlesbrough every week appears to be preventing him ending up like a more decorated version of Sir Stanley Matthews.

The 35-year-old played his 800th game in midweek, and celebrated his 801st with the goal that set United on their way to a victory that will almost certainly ensure that an 11th Premier League medal is added to the groaning Giggs collection. He scored in the game that won United the 1996 title at this ground, too, though he is not taking anything for granted this season just yet. "Liverpool won't give up, so we just keep concentrating on the games still to come," Giggs said. "It's been a memorable week for me, but I just go from game to game too. Playing central midfield isn't too much of a problem when you've got young legs around you."

GIGGS CERTAINLY HAD WILLING workers either side, in Wayne Rooney and Ji-Sung Park, as he floated like a butterfly in midfield, though despite his manager's assertion that United knew they would be in for a battle, it was the failure of the home side to engage in anything remotely like combat that made Giggs's afternoon such a comfortable one. Fullblooded relegation scraps ought to be no place for old men, but Middlesbrough don't do full-blooded or scraps. Just relegation, on this evidence.

Gareth Southgate's team are atypical strugglers, which is precisely why they struggle. They are not stodgy or physical opponents, never in your face, and though they can sometimes lift themselves to beat a team of Liverpool's calibre, as they did a couple of months ago, rarely do they show much aggression or fight. When a local boxer appeared on the pitch to take part in the half-time crossbar challenge there was practically a queue of Boro supporters ready to offer the opinion that he would do better to pull on a red shirt for the second-half.

BORO WERE ONLY A GOAL DOWN at that stage, thanks to Giggs's calm finish from the edge of the area when David Wheater and his fellow defenders took too long to close him down, but already the match had only one winner. United might even have wrapped it up before the interval, when Brad Jones carelessly aimed a clearance straight at Dimitar Berbatov, only for Paul Scholes to fire wide when the Bulgarian rolled the ball square.

Ferguson had Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez on the bench in case of emergency, but the visitors strolled to a second goal just six minutes after the restart, Park supplying a confidently struck shot into the bottom corner from Rooney's marvellous reverse pass into space.

"ONCE WE GOT HOLD OF THE BALL we were always dangerous," Ferguson said, putting it mildly. "The first goal sealed it for us, really. Once Ryan put us in front I thought it would be hard for Middlesbrough to come back. They are a young team." True enough, though with both Southgate and Wheater going into the game discussing their post-relegation futures, Boro appear to have tacitly accepted the inevitable. There was a telling moment towards the end of the first-half when Tony McMahon was taking a throw-in in an attacking position and waiting for someone to make a run or show for the ball. No one did. While the visitors ran all over the pitch with indefatigable energy and invention, the home side just seemed to want the game over. The biggest attendance at the Riverside this season was reduced to the "We support our local team" chant. To which United fans had an instant response: "You support a load of crap." Harsh, but not unfair.

"WE WERE BEATEN BY a better team, none of our players would get in their side, but we're not playing the world champions in any of our remaining three matches," Southgate said. "We've got to go to Newcastle and win, simple as that. Scoring the first goal could be crucial. We haven't won any of our matches after coming from behind."

After going two-up United brought Tevez on and spent the rest of the game toying with Boro, turning the second-half into a sort of warming down exercise ahead of their Champions League semifinal second leg and just occasionally attempting to see if they could pass the ball into their opponents' net. They couldn't, John O'Shea finding himself on the end of the best chance.

BORO'S ATTEMPTS TO SCORE were even less convincing. Before putting a last free-kick hopelessly wide, Afonso Alves came on and flattered to deceive with a mazy run past three defenders, only to end up on his knees. Boro know the feeling well.

The results

May 3: Liverpool 3 (Benayoun 22, Kuyt 28, Lucas 87) bt Newcastle 0. Half-time: 2-0; Sunderland 0 lost to Everton 2 (Pienaar 48, Fellaini 71). Half-time: 0-0.

May 2: Chelsea 3 (Anelka 1, Malouda 10, Drogba 53) bt Fulham 1 (Nevland 4). Half-time: 2-1; Manchester City 3 (Caicedo 27, Robinho 34, Elano pen-45+2) bt Blackburn 1 (Andrews 66). Half-time: 3-0; Middlesbrough 0 lost to Manchester United 2 (Giggs 25, Park 51). Half-time: 0-1; Portsmouth 0 lost to Arsenal 3 (Bendtner 13 & pen-41, Vela 56). Half-time: 0-2; Stoke 0 lost to West Ham 1 (Tristan 33). Half-time: 0-1; Tottenham 1 (Jenas 43) bt West Brom 0. Half-time: 1-0; Wigan 0 drew with Bolton 0.

April 27: Newcastle 0 drew with Portsmouth 0.

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