Man Utd 0 Middlesbrough 0
MAN UTD: Van der Sar, Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Silvestre,Park (Ronaldo 56), O'Shea, Giggs, Evra (Richardson 56),Saha (Rossi 81), van Nistelrooy.
Subs Not Used: Howard, Vidic.
MIDDLESBROUGH: Jones, Parnaby, Riggott, Bates,Queudrue (Taylor 64), Morrison (Christie 72), Cattermole,Boateng, Rochemback, Downing, Maccarone (Parlour 80).
Subs Not Used: Wheater, Knight.
With Middlesbrough having played 26 cup ties this season, and the biggest still to come, perhaps they were seen as 'easy meat' ... just like relegated Sunderland. But for whatever reason, United couldn't get a goal - at Old Trafford - against either!
This was stark evidence of exactly what Wayne Rooney means to this club. Sir Alex has lost Rooney for only two games, not, as seems possible, an entire tournament ... like Sven-Goran Eriksson.
But, when the chips are down, you would at least expect Ruud van Nistelrooy to score from 12 yards. His missed penalty ensured United failed miserably to get the win they needed to tie up an automatic place in next season's Champions League group stage. And Sir Alex was NOT a happy man.
A victory on Sunday in Alan Curbishley's last game as Charlton boss is now required to stave off the renewed threat of Liverpool, who visit Portsmouth on the final day.
Although England manager-elect Steve McClaren can take yet more plaudits for gaining another decent result in a succession of mini-triumphs against his old club, Sir Alex left Old Trafford fuming.
Louis Saha and Van Nistelrooy, partnered together rather than going head-to-head, never looked like breaking down a youthful Boro defence until Lee Cattermole's brainstorm provided Van Nistelrooy with the spot-kick opportunity he wasted.
Without the assurance of Rooney by his side, Saha looked half the player he appeared during United's recent nine-match winning sequence. All the fluidity had gone, as had the forcefulness in his play.
In fairness, Van Nistelrooy has more reason to look sluggish, having spent so much time on the bench recently. But the Dutchman's first touch was poor and on a couple of occasions he was caught on his heels when crosses fizzed into the Boro box, notably when Matthew Bates failed to make contact with Park Ji-sung's driven ball across the six-yard area.
Park was the one man exempt from criticism, save for the fact he kept spoiling the good work his industry generated by continually letting himself down at the vital moment.
With Patrice Evra mystifyingly preferred to Cristiano Ronaldo on the left wing - and doing little to justify why - all United's attacks came down the right, with Gary Neville gamely overlapping at every opportunity.
Fabio Rochemback brought by far the best save of the opening period from Edwin van der Sar, who kept out the Brazilian's shot with an excellent low stop.
It took 10 minutes of the second half - and Ronaldo's introduction - for United to find their spark.
The Portugal winger had already sent a couple of long-range efforts dipping wide when Cattermole inexplicably stuck up both hands to prevent Ronaldo reaching a Giggs corner.
Normally so reliable from the spot, on this occasion, Van Nistelrooy's shooting boots failed him as Jones turned his effort away.
A poor result ... and in all honesty a poor game.
Win FREE pizza with Vital Football!
Select your team and get 50% off if they score twice.