Dimitar Berbatov dozed through 69 minutes of Manchester United’s home game with Middlesbrough on Monday before scoring the only goal to keep the champions in touch with the Premier League leaders.
The Bulgarian striker appeared an uninterested observer for much of a freezing night at Old Trafford, but when the visiting defence failed to properly clear a Michael Carrick cross he was well placed near the penalty spot to steer it back past Ross Turnbull for the decisive goal.
United remain third in the standings on 38 points but with two games in hand on their three main rivals. Liverpool, who thumped Newcastle United 5-1 away on Sunday, lead the way on 45 points, with Chelsea second on 42.
Arsenal are fourth (35), ahead of Aston Villa (35) who visit Hull City on Tuesday.
”Three points was the name of the game, I thought Boro played very well tonight [Monday] and we had to work hard for it,” United manager Alex Ferguson told Setanta Sport.
”But we’ve missed a lot of chances and that’s a bit of a concern, and if we don’t start taking these chances then we might suffer for it.”
United began the game 10 points behind Liverpool, albeit with three games in hand, and though they made most of the running in the first half they were short of spark.
Cristiano Ronaldo had half-a-dozen half chances but either sent them wide or straight at the keeper, while centre back Nemanja Vidic headed wide from a corner.
Ronaldo’s frustrating first half was completed when Emmanuel Pogatetz grabbed him round the throat and threw him to the floor at a corner.
The Portugal winger berated the officials and Pogatetz as the players left the field, rowing all the way up the tunnel in what was the only real talking point of the half.
Middlesbrough, who had not won in their previous seven games as they slid towards the relegation zone, got a little more adventurous after the break, with Afonso Alves and Tuncay Sanli both going close.
United also had plenty of shots, but they were generally tame and the Old Trafford fans were getting edgy, as well as cold.
They were warmed, though, 21 minutes from time when Berbatov cracked the winner from 12m.
”He’s a marvellous player,” Ferguson said of his summer signing from Tottenham Hotspur. ”He’s taken the goal very well at a crucial moment. At that stage you start to get concerned.”
Looking to the second half of the season, Ferguson said: ”We are in a good position now come the turn of the year.
”The two games in hand are at home but it’s going to be a great run-in, very exciting.” — Reuters