United’s hopes of Champions League qualification remain on track after a contest which ended with rival players separated by security staff when punches were thrown. Middlesbrough skipper Ben Gibson and United winger Ashley Young were restrained by team-mates as tempers flared.
Mourinho refused to comment, but Middlesbrough caretaker manager Steve Agnew insisted his players were reacting to provocation after an injury-time bust-up as United defender Eric Bailly and Rudy Gestede initially appeared to bite each other before replays showed the pair had been involved in a heated clinch. “There was no bite,” insisted the Boro sub, who scored his side’s first league goal for eight-and-a-half hours. He added: “Ben thought he (Bailly) bit me, but there was no bite.”
“I’m picking up there’s something gone on in the tunnel,” Agnew said. “That many bodies were there, it was hard to tell with all the pushing and showing. What triggered it off I don’t know? I’ve got a group of behaved players so I can assure you it wouldn’t be one of ours. What I would say it would have been a reaction because of the spirit they have.”
Mourinho had inflamed matters before the game by suggesting he ‘knew the names’ of the Middlesbrough players he claimed had been responsible for the departure of Aitor Karanka, his former Real Madrid assistant who was sacked this week. The Portuguese headed down the tunnel at the final whistle without acknowledging his opposite number, though Agnew confirmed the pair had shaken hands in the tunnel.
“Was this justice for Karanka?” Mourinho said after seeing his side extend their 18-game unbeaten league run to end a 19-week stay in sixth by climbing to fifth, two points ahead of Arsenal and seventh-placed Everton. “I think justice for Karanka is the work he did here, people can never delete that. He took the club from the brink of League One to the Premier League. I know what I’m saying, he could have left for a bigger club and yet he stayed, then in the end he loses his job.
“Despite all that’s happened, I still think he’ll be unhappy we have won, because he wants this club to stay in the championship.”
Middlesbrough’s hopes of achieving that aim look increasingly slim after an 11-game three-month run without a league win.
They at least ended their lengthy goal drought as Gestede pounced on a mistake by Chris Smalling to halve the arrears from close range with 13 minutes remaining. Hopes of salvaging an unlikely draw to chip away at the five-point gap to safety were extinguished by Victor Valdes’ stoppage time slip which allowed Antonio Valencia to walk the ball into an unguarded net.
“It’s a big win that keeps us alive in the competition for fourth place,” Mourinho added. Given their remaining presence in the Europa League, his side retain two potential avenues to next season’s Champions League, and the Portuguese added. “Do I prefer to qualify for the Champions League by finishing fourth or winning Europa League? I prefer Europa League. There’s a prestige to winning a trophy.”
United were last beaten in the league at the end of October, and it is an impressive record which rarely looked under threat once they took a deserved 30th-minute lead through Marouane Fellaini, the Belgian ending a run of 15 months without a league goal. Ashley Young cut in from the left to send over a cross to the far post, and as Valdes and former Manchester United defender Fabio hesitated, Fellaini was left with the simple task of heading the ball into an unguarded net.
Valdes kept his side in the contest, the United old boy denying Marcus Rashford’s close-range effort and the follow-up from Valencia. Jesse Lingard put a more realistic slant on the scoreline when, just after the hour, he was allowed to advance from half-way to send a stunning 20-yard effort into the top corner.
“To push United all the way is something I was pleased with,” added Agnew, who has had no assurances as to the length of his temporary tenure beyond Middlesbrough’s next game at Swansea at the start of next month. He added: “It’s a display that gives us hope and I’ve seen enough of these players to know we’re capable of winning games.”
Valdes 6; Barragan 5, Gibson 5, Baernardo 3, Fabio 6; Clayton 6, Leadbitter 6 (Gestede 67, 7); Downing 5, De Roon 5, Ramirez 5 (Traore 68, 5); Negredo 5.
Guzan, Stuani, Fry, Guedioura, Forshaw.
De Gea 7; Jones 6, Smalling 6, Bailly 7; Valencia 8, Carrick 7, Fellaini 7, Young 6; Mata 7 (Rojo 69, 6), Rashford 7 (Darmian 90, 6), Lingard 7 (Martial 80, 6).
Romero, Mkhitaryan, Shaw, Fosu-Mensah.
J Moss 6