Man Utd 1-0 Middlesbrough
Manchester United made hard work of dispatching Middlesbrough at Old Trafford as Dimitar Berbatov spared their blushes with the only goal of the game.
The Bulgarian volleyed home from close range in the 69th minute after Michael Carrick's left-wing cross had bounced back off Boro defender David Wheater.
Berbatov, who replaced Boxing Day's match-winner at Stoke Carlos Tevez after he returned to Argentina for a "family issue", was one of the guilty culprits in the first hour of the match.
But he was not the only one with Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rafael, Nemanja Vidic and Ji-sung Park all squandering chances against a determined Middlesbrough side.
United will probably have few games this season as one-sided as this but they were in real danger of stumbling in their bid to close the gap on Premier League leaders Liverpool.
Credit must also go to Middlesbrough, especially goalkeeper Ross Turnbull, who put in a disciplined performance which very nearly paid off with a point.
Turnbull was in the action early on turning aside Rooney's 18-yard low curling effort and then palming Ronaldo's resulting cross away from the lurking Berbatov.
Ronaldo sliced horribly wide and Park had a shot deflected for a corner as United continued to dominate against but found Boro's defending resolute.
Then two Ronaldo free-kicks from either side of the pitch went wide and straight at Turnbull.
Midway through the half Afonso Alves' half-hit shot was blocked by Carrick and then shot over after easily turning Vidic to give United a warning they could not afford to switch off.
Ronaldo scuffed Rooney's cross wide with his weaker foot when he should have hit the target with the Portugal winger also forcing another low save out of Turnbull.
Right-back Rafael also got in on the act when he blazed into the side-netting when the goalkeeper palmed Rooney's left-wing cross into his path.
Rooney should have given the hosts the lead when he sprang the offside trap in the 35th minute but inexplicably chose to pass rather than shoot and although they won a corner Vidic headed a good chance wide.
Two minutes before half-time Chris Riggott produced a superbly-timed block inside the penalty area to deny Berbatov just as he was about to shoot.
In the final action of the half Turnbull's fingertip save denied Rooney after he had picked up Ronaldo's flick-on.
Ronaldo spent much of his walk to the tunnel complaining to referee Martin Atkinson he should have had a penalty after being grappled to the ground by Pogatetz at a corner right on the whistle but the official was unmoved.
United were quickly into their stride after the break, although Carrick was caught in two minds as to whether to pass or shoot and ended up scuffing the ball straight to Turnbull.
Boro's determination to keep a clean sheet saw Matthew Bates clatter into Rooney, taking the man and the ball, but Atkinson ruled it a fair challenge.
However, Park was the first to be booked after hacking down Julio Arca in the 53rd minute.
Boro's first chance of the half saw Alves' shot deflect for a corner off Vidic after a quick counter-attack.
Tuncay could have given the visitors a shock lead in the 62nd minute when he dived to meet Bates' cross into the six-yard area but diverted the ball wide.
An indication things were not going United's way was when Park's shot was stopped by Vidic from Rooney's left-wing free-kick.
Moments later the South Korea midfielder was denied again from long range by the outstanding Turnbull, with Ronaldo driving wide on the turn from United's next attack.
But Berbatov finally made the breakthrough in the 69th minute when he volleyed home from close range after Carrick's cross from the left had rebounded off Wheater.
Park then produced a contender for miss of the season when he somehow ballooned over from three yards from substitute Gary Neville's cross.
Turnbull again stopped a Ronaldo thunderbolt as United pressed for a second with Carrick curling a 20-yard shot wide.
However, United had done enough to close the gap on Liverpool to seven points with two matches in hand.
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