Match preview: Middlesbrough v Manchester United

Middlesbrough v Manchester United, Premier League, May 2, 2009

Sir Alex Ferguson has not been shy in proclaiming his dissatisfaction over the timing of this fixture. Following the 1-0 first leg Champions League semi-final victory over Arsenal, Fergie joked: “Arsenal’s big advantage is that they can play Pat Rice at right-back and Arsene himself at centre-forward on Saturday. We have to play a team to win the game. We have a lunchtime kick-off at Middlesbrough and I do not think it is right.”

Three points clear at the top of the Premier League with a game in hand should be enough for United to claim a third successive title. But, with Liverpool in fine form Ferguson cannot afford to slip up.

United produced an excellent performance on Wednesday night against Arsenal, yet again the team selection was spot on and the energy and vigour on display from the domestic and European champions threatened to overrun the Gunners. After a few weeks of struggle, the second half performance agsinst Spurs last week may have been the catalyst to see United over the line in the title race and they are firm favourites for a visit to the Riverside that looks on paper their hardest away fixture left this season.

The Riverside hasn’t always been a happy hunting ground for the Red Devils in recent seasons. The 4-1 win for Boro in October 2005, that spawned the famous Roy Keane MUTV rant, sticks in the memory. And United have drawn 2-2 away at Middlesbrough in the two following seasons. (4-1 to Boro is 400/1 and 2-2 is 18/1.)

So far in 2008/2009, Middlesbrough have lost twice to United, 3-1 in the League Cup and 1-0 in December thanks to a solitary goal from Dimitar Berbatov, in a game where United struggled at times to make their dominance count.

It is getting pretty desperate for Gareth Southgate’s side, three points adrift of safety with only four games to go. Their latest defeat came at Arsenal last week when they were simply outclassed and their away form (ten successive defeats) has been crippling.

Incredibly, Boro are unbeaten at home this calendar year and have shown some signs of life in recent matches. The win over Liverpool in February stands out and they have also performed well in games against Hull and Fulham.

Sir Alex Ferguson will have a selection headache with the second leg at the Emirates next Tuesday. Gareth Southgate is likely to be gung ho as he has been in recent weeks and the likes of Jeremie Aliadiere (guilty of an important miss last week at Arsenal) and Stewart Downing (no league goals this season) are going to have to stand up and be counted to give the home side some hope in the battle to avoid the dreaded drop.

101gg predicts: Middlesbrough 0 – Manchester United 2 (11/2) & Ji-Sung Park to score the first goal (14/1).

Full match odds here.