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Mar 19, 2007

The bête noire of Teesside

While anger has turned to grudging admiration in much of the country, in Middlesbrough dislike of Cristiano Ronaldo has only increased as their meetings with Manchester United this season have revolved almost entirely around penalties and the Portuguese.

Therefore it was with a certain inevitability that the winger scored the spot kick to take Manchester United into their 25th FA Cup semi-final.

Middlesbrough queried its award in the meeting Old Trafford - the word 'cheat' was apparently used in dugout discussions, to the annoyance of Carlos Queiroz - though Jonathan Woodgate, making a solitary error in an otherwise impeccable performance, made contact with the probable Player of the Year after he met Gabriel Heinze's long pass.

Nor were Boro pacified after Ronaldo sent Mark Schwarzer the wrong way. His celebrations included what may be deemed a provocative gesture towards the normally mild-mannered Gareth Southgate; at his most outspoken in his tenure in management towards Ronaldo after he procured a penalty in their Premiership meeting at the Riverside.

'Maybe they don't like me because maybe I'm too good,' suggested the goalscorer with a mixture of cheek and truth. Middlesbrough substitute James Morrison certainly appeared not to like the winger after his rash lunge on Ronaldo brought about his injury-time dismissal. 'We all, in that position, would love to do what he did because of the frustration, but you've got to keep your discipline,' said Southgate, almost condoning his midfielder.

This time, there was no doubt Ronaldo was fouled, though he insisted Mike Dean was also correct to award the penalty. 'Of course I felt the contact,' added the United man. 'If you touch me, I lose my movement.'

Southgate did not quite agree: 'I'm still not sure and I've seen [the penalty incident] three times but I can understand why it's been given. The galling thing for my team is we've played them three times and conceded three penalties.' More placatory after the match, he praised Ronaldo: 'He's a fantastic player and he's very good at what he does.'

For good measure, it was a Ronaldo penalty that earned United this replay. Southgate, whose playing career was defined by a missed spot kick, may believe his time on the touchline has been notable for those Ronaldo has scored.

It was, therefore, another victory United can attribute to Ronaldo's trickery, even if he could not quite emulate his own brilliance against Bolton two days ago. But his intervention was required because, Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney aside, there were few other potential match-winners for United tonight as their FA Cup run continues to expose the deficiencies of their supporting cast.

Especially as Middlesbrough more than matched them in most aspects of the match. So often anaemic in Steve McClaren's time in charge, they appear to have discovered spirit under Southgate. The assumption that Ronaldo's equaliser at the Riverside had ended their chances of progressing was rapidly challenged. George Boateng battled bravely in the midfield; Schwarzer twice excelled in denying Rooney when the striker was clean through on goal and Woodgate, providing a classy sheen to some determined defending, repelled the majority of attacks.

Indeed, the penalty notwithstanding, Woodgate's display suggested that were McClaren to pick his England side on current form, perhaps England's central defensive partnership in Israel should be Woodgate and Jamie Carragher. There are suggestions that his poise and positional sense has attracted the attention of Rafael Benitez while an innate sense of timing normally reduces the need for last-ditch heroics.

Certainly Rooney should be able to provide a glowing recommendation. His evening was blighted by Woodgate's presence. Meanwhile, Alan Smith's reaction to Woodgate's dominance was to scythe down his former Leeds colleague. A booking ensued.

And while Leeds United exited the competition at the first time of asking and left the Premiership three seasons ago, their influence is still felt in the upper echelon of the domestic game. Four players whose sales produced more than £50 million - though the financial mismanagement at Elland Road ensured they still came close to extinction - were in direct opposition at either end of the pitch.

In the other battle of Leeds past, a moment of Middlesbrough superiority almost proved telling. But, though Mark Viduka succeeded in turning away from Rio Ferdinand twice and his cut-back was inviting, Stewart Downing side-footed wastefully over.

It proved a turning point. Five minutes later, Ronaldo struck the outside of the upright from the toughest of angles. Then, after Schwarzer denied Rooney, he supplied the winner. Ronaldo remains unlikely to win any popularity contests in Middlesbrough, but it is hard to imagine that concerns him.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Cristiano Ronaldo
If he didn't destroy Middlesbrough in the way he orchestrated the demolition of Bolton, this was another matched he determined. How would United have fared had he left last summer?

UNITED VERDICT: The regulars maintained their high standards, but the understudies, with the notable exception of Gabriel Heinze, failed to convince. Ryan Giggs provided some incisive and well-judged passing from the anchor role in midfield, but Kieran Richardson was a predictably inadequate deputy on the left flank. Wes Brown, meanwhile, emerged a distant second in his duel with Stewart Downing on an evening to enhance the reputation of the absent Gary Neville.

And while Alan Smith's quest for match sharpness is a mitigating factor, his display in attack means the return of Louis Saha and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be timely. Although he has had an extended run in midfield and one-third of his appearances have been as a replacement, Smith's United goal tally stands at 11 in 82 appearances. It is not a record to fill them with confidence.

BORO VERDICT: While neither Viduka nor Yakubu Ayegbeni located their top form, they nonetheless threatened a goal. Downing's display suggested he is a beneficiary of Southgate's more attack-minded management but, despite defeat, it was a performance to suggest a top-10 Premiership finish should be within their grasp.


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