MANCHESTER // Sir Alex Ferguson is heading in to 2009 full of confidence and satisfied with Manchester United's position in the Premier League. United's 1-0 victory over a battling Middlesbrough at Old Trafford closed the gap on Premier League leaders Liverpool to seven points with two matches in hand.
However, as United stuttered to three points, never really hitting their stride and missing several chances, Liverpool sent out a message on Sunday with their 5-1 away thrashing of Newcastle. Ferguson, though, was more concerned with getting the three points than playing well at this stage of the season anyway. He said: "We are in a good position come the turn of the year. We have two games in hand, both at home, and it is going to be a great run in," he said.
"The important thing is to do our own job, look after ourselves and we'll do OK." United struggled to break down a resilient Boro side, creating 25 chances in all but having only Dimitar Berbatov's 69th-minute goal to show for their efforts. The Bulgarian volleyed home from close range after Michael Carrick's left-wing cross had bounced back off Boro defender David Wheater Berbatov - who replaced Carlos Tevez, the Boxing Day's match-winner against Stoke after he returned to Argentina on 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, Rafael, Cristiano Ronaldo, Nemanja Vidic and Ji-sung Park all wasting chances.
It was the second successive 1-0 win but United have scored only three goals in their last four matches. Ferguson admitted that the inability to convert opportunities was becoming a worry. "We missed a lot of chances and that is the big concern," he said. "If we cannot take those chances we will suffer from it. But I think you have to see how well Middlesbrough played. For a team in their position [one place above the relegation zone] it belies their ability."
The Middlesbrough manager Gareth Southgate admitted they were disappointed not to have held United at bay. "I thought there were a lot of good things about the performance," he said. "We were very disappointed how we played on Friday [a 1-0 defeat to Everton] and it was important to restore some pride. We were very resilient today and our keeper has made some good saves, but generally our discipline in terms of tactics was good.
"Our quality in the final third was what let us down. We got in some good positions and made some good breaks but didn't make the most of the situations we were in and didn't really test the keeper. "It was an improvement. We knew it was a shot to nothing because only Newcastle have drawn here but the game was really about giving a performance that gives us some belief going forward. I thought we did that, which was important, because it is what we do from here on in that matters."
* PA Sport