Man United reignite top four push with win at Middlesbrough
Antonio Valencia capitalises on Valdes error to secure victory and increase Boro woes
Antonio Valencia takes advantage of a Victor Valdes slip to score Manchester United’s third against Middlesbrough. Photograph: Lee Smith/Reuters
It ended in acrimony with suggestions that Middlesbrough’s Rudy Gestede had attempted to bite Eric Bailly during a late altercation but, beneath such controversy, both managers were left with grounds for cautious optimism.
Hope can be a fragile commodity but on a day when goals from Marouane Fellaini (a routine header), Jesse Lingard (a sublime finish) and Antonio Valenica (a goalkeeping howler) lifted his side to fifth José Mourinho can still dream of gate-crashing the top four while at least, thanks to Gestede, Boro scored their first goal in five league games.
They have now gone 11 matches without a win but there were signs that life after Mourinho’s old friend Aitor Karanka, who was sacked on Thursday, might be looking up under the much more attacking interim manager Steve Agnew.
It is a shame for him that Gestede may well be imminently suspended because Boro’s next three games – against Swansea City, Hull City and Burnley – could yet help propel the 19th-placed side out of the bottom three.
Agnew escaped enduring the worst possible beginning when Marcus Rashford spurned a highly inviting early opening. After meeting Lingard’s ball and proceeding to burn Bernardo off with that astonishing pace of his, the young striker was left with only Victor Valdés to beat but misplaced his shot, permitting the one-time United goalkeeper to save. It proved a telling cameo, bearing the hallmark hesitancy of a player without a league goal since September.
If that irked Mourinho, the visiting manager’s mood was hardly helped by an apparent malfunction down one side of his team where Eric Bailly, the right-sided component of a flexible back three and Valencia, the wing back, seemed to be suffering communication problems.
It enabled Gaston Ramírez, looking his most engaged for weeks, to enjoy himself a little and David de Gea was duly required to turn away his angled, rising, right-foot shot after the Uruguayan cut inside.
Valdés’s own, unhappy, stint at Old Trafford may have featured only a couple of first-team appearances but he showed off his high-calibre reflexes courtesy of a pair of stunning saves to first thwart Rashford’s attempt to turn in Juan Mata’s low cross and then, almost instantly, repel Valenica’s shot on the rebound.
Yet even Valdés was confounded when Ashley Young deceived the over-stretched Antonio Barragan – experiencing an afternoon to forget – before unleashing a deep cross met by Fellaini’s forehead. Played onside by Ben Gibson, the Riverside emitted a collective groan as that familiar curly mop rose above Fabio before thumping a header beyond the goalkeeper’s reach. It was Fellaini’s first goal in 30 league appearances since December 2015.
In the directors’ box Steve Gibson, Boro’s owner, and Neil Bausor, his chief executive, exchanged rueful glances as, down in the technical area, a tracksuited Agnew urged his troops to regroup.
If Valdés’s heroics were responsible for keeping them in the game and Rashford’s highly convincing Thierry Henry impression as, invariably cued up by Lingard, he persistently peeled away from the hapless, consistently outpaced, Bernardo was becoming an ominously recurring theme, Boro did have grounds for a modicum of cautious optimism.
While Stewart Downing, recalled to arms by Agnew after spending far too many months in Karanka’s metaphorical deep freeze, showed off the odd classy manoeuvre – which served as reminders of why Sir Alex Ferguson once wanted to transplant the former England winger to Old Trafford – Alvaro Negredo and Marten de Roon both missed half chances before half-time.
Such bald statistics failed to do justice to the clear improvement in Boro’s game post Karanka. Infinitely more positive and attacking than in recent weeks, they were enjoying more possession than was typical under the Basque and it seemed Agnew’s bad luck that this upturn came on a day when they faced a United side blessed with sufficient attacking talent to blow teams away.
Unfortunately for Karanka’s interim successor Lingard had clearly tired of playing Rashford, who for all what exhilarating approach work was repeatedly let down by his final ball, and decided to assume responsibility for scoring himself.
Accordingly when Bailly and Mata combined to set him free, Lingard ignored a couple of decent passing options and simply accelerated forward to around 25 yards out, whereupon he directed a viciously curving shot swerved away from Valdés as it headed for the top corner. Brilliant as that finish was, it will not have been lost on Agnew that, once again, Beranardo and Barragan stood off.
Rather than opt for damage limitation, Boro’s caretaker aimed to at least end that goalless run by liberating two attackers, Rudy Gestede and Adama Traoré, from the bench. Evidently concerned by the former’s aerial ability and the latter’s pace, Mourinho displayed Karanka-esque pragmatism by replacing Mata with Marcos Rojo.
Now United were playing with a back four but this cautious measure failed to pay dividends as Gestede swiftly delighted in side-footing from close range Boro’s first goal in more than eight hours of league football.
Perhaps appropriately that goal began with Downing’s admittedly slight speculative left-wing cross which was headed on by Negredo and then De Roon and, aided by botched attempts at clearing from Phil Jones and then Smalling – the ball falling to his weaker left foot, Gestede was able to apply the final, incisive, touch.
Under Karanka, Boro rarely seemed to have sufficient bodies in the box to polish such chances off but Agnew’s technical-area celebrations – you might think he had reached a cup final – were suggestive of a conviction that fortune really does favour the brave.
Mourinho’s players were ruffled and they were duly drawn into a spot of argy bargy as Boro pressed for an equaliser, and Gestede and Bailly crossed swords with suggestions that the home substitute had attempted to bite the defender.
Then, much to the visiting manager’s delight, it all went wrong for the hosts. Downing played a routine backpass towards Valdés and Valencia went through the motions of closing the goalkeeper down – until a horrified Valdés slipped, allowing the wing-back to round him and walk the ball into the back of the net.