Manchester United knew that a win would take them out of sixth place and, while it wasn’t totally plain sailing, they were worthy of their 3-1 win over Middlesbrough.
Marouane Fellaini and a superb Jesse Lingard goal gave them a 2-0 lead before Rudy Gestede got Middlesbrough back in to the game with 13 minutes left. United were hanging on after that, with Jose Mourinho reverting to type and playing with too many defenders.
However, the hard work of Antonio Valencia paid off when, in injury time, he chased what appeared to be a hopeless cause way back to Boro keeper Victor Valdes, whose subsequent slip left the United wing-back with an empty net to wrap up the points.
Fellaini and Lingard have been on the receiving end of criticism from United supporters over the years, so it was great to see them come up with a performance in the absence of the team’s superstars, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba.
United have also moved out of sixth for the first time in four months. They hardly set the world alight in the way they played, against a side that will surely be relegated, but it was so important to take advantage of Arsenal dropping points.
Marcus Rashford has had two opportunities to show Mourinho that he deserves more playing time, even when Ibrahimovic returns from his suspension, and has blown both of them, missing a good chance to score against Chelsea on Monday and two good opportunities against Middlesbrough. Rashford’s all-round play was good but he really could have done with a goal.
Finishing the game with defenders playing in seven of 10 outfield positions was appalling. That would not be acceptable against a top team but to do it against opponents as poor as Middlesbrough was very disappointing. The fact the defence looks shaky, even when packed out, is worrisome. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling should not be near the starting line-up.
To set up so defensively isn’t what any fan wants to see. However, most can probably agree that three points was the priority and, with so many games to play and given United’s injuries and suspensions, they can be happy with Mourinho’s game plan.
GK David De Gea, 7 — Made a good save from Gaston Ramirez despite having players blocking his view. Middlesbrough didn’t pose much of a threat but De Gea dealt with everything that came his way. There was nothing he could have done about the goal he conceded.
DF Antonio Valencia, 8 — Another fine performance from one of United’s best players this season, with the added bonus of a goal. His pace going forward was so important to United’s attack and he was rewarded for his efforts to close down Valdes.
DF Eric Bailly, 6 — Showed great strength on plenty of occasions while playing on the right side of a back three and won the ball back more than any of United’s other defenders. Got involved in a skirmish with Gestede that continued after the final whistle.
DF Chris Smalling, 3 — He made a woeful mistake to allow Middlesbrough back in to the game after an earlier comedy moment when he tried to head the ball back to De Gea but missed completely and belly flopped. Trying to find a positive, Smalling did make lots of clearances.
DF Phil Jones, 5 — Picked up an early booking that replays showed was unfortunate, later slipped when a ball came in to the box and lost out to Alvaro Negredo in a dangerous position that set up a Boro attack. Jones did also make a great, last-ditch challenge on the same player.
DF Ashley Young, 6 — Delivered an excellent cross to Fellaini at the back post to put United 1-0 up and generally supported the attack well.
MF Michael Carrick, 6 — He saw nowhere near as much of the ball as usual and didn’t move play forward very often. Yet in a game where United surrendered lots of possession, Carrick played his limited role well enough.
MF Marouane Fellaini, 7 — Directed his header well to beat Valdes at the far post, was strong in the air overall and made several good tackles. Mourinho trusts Fellaini, even if lots of United fans do not, and the player rewarded his manager.
MF Juan Mata, 6 — Created several chances and got himself into good positions before being substituted. He delivered an excellent ball to Rashford in the first half that should have resulted in a goal.
MF Jesse Lingard, 8 — Scored a cracking goal to put United 2-0 up. He saw more of the ball than any other player; a fine pass early set up Rashford and was the first of several good link-ups between the pair. Lingard worked tirelessly for 80 minutes before going off with an injury.
FW Marcus Rashford, 6 — His pace gave the Middlesbrough defence something to worry about but he missed a great chance when one-on-one with Valdes, then had another opportunity saved. Rashford struggled to get involved when the second-half tactics largely involved booting the ball vaguely in his direction and he was crowded out by defenders.
DF Marcos Rojo, 6 — Brought on to see the game out and made some vital clearances.
FW Anthony Martial, NR — You wouldn’t have known he came on. Touched the ball once in 15 minutes.
DF Matteo Darmian, NR — Brought on in the last minute of injury-time.