Jose Mourinho saw his Manchester United side pick up three key points at the Riverside with a 3-1 victory over relegation threatened Middlesbrough. It was United’s first visit to the ground since the 2-0 victory back in 2008/09 as Mourinho’s men overtook Everton and Arsenal, whilst closing the gap on Manchester City and Liverpool – who drew 1-1 later in the day.
The visitors were missing talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was suspended following his elbow on Tyrone Mings in the 1-1 draw with Bournemouth and Paul Pogba – who had injured his hamstring in the 1-0 victory over FC Rostov on Thursday. Both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcos Rojo were on the bench and not considered match fit as the Portuguese rotated his team for what was the third game in less than a week.
Marouane Fellaini, who was excellent on Thursday after coming on as a substitute for the injured Pogba, opened the scoring with a nicely taken header following good work by Ashley Young on the left hand side. Jesse Lingard doubled United’s lead with a thunderbolt in the 62nd minute. The home side pulled a goal back with thirteen minutes to spare through substitute Rudy Gestede after a woeful clearance by Chris Smalling. United sealed the victory in the third minute of injury time after a calamity error by former red Victor Valdes, who slipped whilst attempting a clearance. The error allowed Antonio Valencia in to notch up his first goal of the season as United ran out 3-1 winners.
Jesse Lingard was pure class against Middlesborough and the winger demonstrated a more mature element to his game, picking up positions in between the lines and driving forward. The home side were unable to deal with his acceleration and his goal game from a run that started in his own half, before striking a right footed shot past the helpless Valdes who could not do anything about the goal. Unfortunately for Valdes, the same cannot be said about his two centre halves – who were far too slow in closing down Lingard before his goal.
The 24 year old was deployed as an inside left, which allowed Ashley Young to bomb on. Marcus Rashford, who should have scored a brace, was the main beneficiary of Lingard’s creativity and through balls – coming close in the first half but was thwarted by Valdes. Rashford’s movement was good and he gave Bernardo a torrid time, playing off the shoulder and darting in behind. All that was missing from his game was finishing – but in time, he will become a lot more consistent in front of goal.
With United 2-0 up, Mourinho looked to a change and introduced Marcos Rojo for the impressive Juan Mata – who slotted in at centre half along side Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. At times United looked to line up with four at the back, which would then effortlessly switch to a three as United were on the offensive. United had four centre halves on the pitch at the same time following the introduction of Rojo and although wing backs Young and Valencia, with the latter deployed higher up the pitch, were still an attacking threat – the change invited the home side to attack. Post match Mourinho did admit that his defensive line allowed Middlesbrough back in the game, by sitting too deep and inviting pressure on. However, the manager felt that it could be fatigue – hinting at the congested fixture list that his side has faced recently.
For sixty-seven minutes, Steve Agnew’s side didn’t pose any threat at all except for a first half Gaston Ramirez strike, which was pounded out by David De Gea – until the introduce of Rudy Gestede and most noticeably Adama Traore. It was Traore’s pace and trickery that raised the spirits of the home side and although Gestede gave Middlesborough a lifeline, the Malian gave United problems. United’s skipper Smalling, will not want to look back at his soft clearance, which gave Gestede a simple tap in.
Agnew switched to a more direct approach, with Stuart Downing and Traore whipping in balls to the box, attempting to find Gestede and Alvaro Negredo – which did make for an entertaining last ten minutes. Victor Valdes, who made two appearance for United at the end of 2014/15, made a horrendous error when attempting to clear a routine back pass, gifting Valencia a chance to clinch victory for the visitors.
Before the match, Mourinho spoke about the difficultly in playing a fixture so close to the Europa League tie on Thursday. The Portuguese openly accused the Premier League of not helping English teams in European competition, suggesting the game should have been played later in the afternoon. The result wasn’t what Mourinho had predicted (he suggested United would lose the match), which was the club’s first league win since the 2-0 victory over Watford in February and was a welcomed three points as United look to close in on a top four place.
With Arsenal losing and Manchester City drawing at home to Liverpool – Mourinho has dislodged the shackles of sixth spot and can see the Champions League riches at the end of the tunnel. With the International break upon us, United will want to ensure that when WBA come to Old Trafford on April 1st they continue the march up the table.