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Top four at stake in Manchester derby

50-50 Challenge
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 By Andy Mitten

Man United end a busy spell with gritty win that boosts their top-four hopes

Jose Mourinho gets another jab in at Manchester United's fixture calendar after handling Middlesbrough 3-1 in the Premier League.

The MPI Adventure currently dominates the skyline behind the home end at Middlesbrough's Riverside Stadium. Moored on the River Tees, the odd-looking ship is used to install giant wind turbines in the North Sea, with its six jacking legs -- longer than those of former Boro and United defender Gary Pallister -- allowing it to stand firm in water up to 40 metres deep. 

On Sunday, Manchester United's six-man defence searched for similar stability as they protected a narrow lead in the closing stages at Middlesbrough. Jose Mourinho, who had lost his two previous games on Teeside, brought on extra defenders to counter the threat posed by substitute Rudy Gestede.

Boro had previously done little with the majority of possession they enjoyed but Gestede offered a more direct threat and he duly scored his club's first league goal in over eight hours of football. From a United point of view, it came as the result of another mistake in defence.

Chris Smalling was culpable this time, marring an otherwise decent display, in which he marked the powerful Alvaro Negredo out of the game. But such defensive errors are happening too frequently and the days of a Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand-style solidity at the back are sorely missed.

United had to battle but won the game 3-1 -- admittedly against a team in the relegation zone -- and it was a weekend of positive results, with top-four rivals Manchester City and Liverpool drawing and Arsenal losing.

While Mourinho says he would rather win the Europa League to reach next season's Champions League than claim a spot through the league, it would be dangerous to put all eggs into one basket as Easter approaches.

With 10 wins and eight draws in the last 18 league games, United have hope that they can climb from their current fifth position. If they win the two games they have in hand over fourth-placed Liverpool then they'll go above their rivals.

The matches in question are at Manchester City and Southampton and, while it's a big ask to get six points, United have won more games on the road -- eight compared to six -- than they have at Old Trafford this season.

While Sunday's win wasn't pretty, there were mitigating factors. It was United's third away game in 11 days -- they also played at home during that run -- and followed long trips to Russia and London. Maybe whoever fills the travel official position, which the club are advertising internally, can help avoid similar mishaps to that which occurred after last Monday's FA Cup defeat at Chelsea, when the plane scheduled to take the team back to Manchester was unavailable.

Jose Mourinho's Manchester United have not lost in the Premier League since Oct. 23.

Outspoken former United captain Roy Keane disagrees but Mourinho feels he's in a battle of attrition, with the football authorities conspiring against him by shifting United away games to noon kickoffs and not helping alleviate fixture congestion. Once the international break ends, up to 16 games could be played from Apr. 1-May 24.

At the Riverside, United started in a 3-4-3 formation under Mourinho for the first time in a league game. The priority was three points after a run of cup games -- only one of United's previous eight fixtures had been in the league -- and, though it was by no means a polished performance in blustery conditions, there were some magic moments.

The first saw the jet-heeled Marcus Rashford, playing up front in place of the suspended Zlatan Ibrahimovic, leave defender Bernardo behind after six minutes, Unfortunately, though, the 19-year-old saw his subsequent shot saved and so failed to net his first league goal since September.

A clinical striker would have finished the chance, as he would with Rashford's golden opportunity to score at Stamford Bridge last week. It's hoped that Rashford can develop into that player -- Mourinho said after the game: Goals will arrive, no problem at all." -- because his movement and pace is exceptional. 

Jesse Lingard's goal -- a long-range shot into the top right-hand corner after a counter-attacking break out -- was one of his best and the speed at which he and Rashford run at players excites fans. It followed the opener from Marouane Fellaini, who got away from ex-United full-back Fabio to convert a header from an exceptional Ashley Young cross.

Victory was sealed by an injury-time strike from Antonio Valencia after he chased a loose ball following a Middlesbrough corner. The pressure he put on Victor Valdes brought about a slip by the former United goalkeeper, who had made several excellent saves in the first half, allowing Valencia to tap into an empty net.

Middlesbrough look doomed to relegation but, given they are still to play Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool, they might be able to do United a favour or two. Meanwhile, Mourinho's side return to action in two weeks with home games vs. West Brom, who are eighth, and seventh-placed Everton.

Normally, United would be expected to win both but, with just six wins in 14 games at Old Trafford, they haven't done what's expected at home so far in 2016-17. More draws won't suffice. More wins, however, and they can start thinking of Madrid and Munich rather than Middlesbrough.

Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.

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