If you had to predict one match where Manchester United's unbeaten away league record looked likely to end, you could have done worse than go for this one.
Middlesbrough, who seem to chop and change from being unbelievably good to unbelievably bad with the regularity of north-east showers, tend to like it when Manchester United come to town. Witness last season's four-goal demolition of Alex Ferguson's team in which the visitors were lucky to get one.
This time around there would be no Middlesbrough mauling for United, only a seventh win on the road from eight attempts. The scoreline makes it look closer than it was because the league leaders put in a confident performance that should have yielded more than two goals, yet it bodes well for Wednesday's Champions League game against Benfica at Old Trafford.
However, once again the spotlight after this match was on one man - Cristiano Ronaldo. Television replays of a 19th-minute incident involving the Portugal maverick and Middlesbrough goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer confirmed what most people inside the ground thought at the time, that he had deliberately dived over the Australian's body to win the penalty from which Louis Saha gave United the lead.
'It was always a very tough game for us, they're the best side at the moment in the league, but obviously it's made a lot harder when you go behind to a goal like that,' said a clearly angry Middlesbrough manager Gareth Southgate.
'We started the game quite brightly and were well in it when they scored, and that knocked our confidence a bit. When you go behind to a team like United it's a very difficult ask to come back.'
When pressed further about the penalty and whether he thought Ronaldo had cheated to win the kick, Southgate added: 'Yeah, simple as that. It's very difficult for the referee because it happens very quickly but how many times are we going to see it? The lad has got a history of doing it. I think in the end that's cost us the game.
The last time Manchester United were on Teesside, they suffered a humiliating defeat, and Roy Keane took it out on the players. When they returned to the Riverside last night, the Irishman was nowhere to be seen, and one of those he criticised scored the decisive goal. Darren Fletcher's winner, midway through the second half, just after Middlesbrough had drawn level, extended to six points United's advantage over Chelsea at the top of the Premiership and confirmed that Sir Alex Ferguson's side have come a long way since that miserable night 13 months ago.
They had to be strong to emerge from a breathless affair that had more to it than the controversy stoked by Gareth Southgate. The Middlesbrough manager was furious about the penalty with which United opened the scoring affter 19 minutes, all but describing Cristiano Ronaldo as a cheat.
Southgate complained that the Portuguese winger had dived and had a history of conning referees. The United player was homing in on goal when Middlesbrough goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer rushed out to challenge. Ronaldo stumbled and fell to the ground, although slow-motion television evidence suggested there had been no contact. Louis Saha scored from the spot to leave Sotuhgate fuming. Asked if he thought Ronaldo was a cheat, Southgate said: "Yes, it's as simple as that. It is very difficult for the referee because it happens so quickly, but how many times are we going to see it? The lad has a history of doing it and, in the end, it has cost us the game. The keeper has done everything he could to get out of the way and the player still went down. There was clearly no contact. It was never a penalty."
Ferguson disagreed, saying: "It looks as if the keeper hasn't touched him, but there was clearly intent. What was Cristiano supposed to do? He was going to get carted anyway." Ronaldo's influence extended way beyond the fouls he won. He was instrumental in a stirring first-half display by United, and played a part in their second goal.
The visitors could have been more than one ahead at the interval, but Boro came at them early in the second half, drawing level through substitute James Morrison. "It was a very important result for us," said Ferguson. "It is not an easy place to come to, as we have experienced in the past, but we showed our resolve. Even when they equalised, we came straight back at them."
Ferguson, perhaps conscious of their 4-1 thrashing here just over a year ago, paid Middlesbrough every respect by fielding a side that included Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Louis Saha and Nemanja Vidic, all of whom had been missing against Everton in midweek. Less predictably, he dropped Michael Carrick and asked Fletcher to partner Paul Scholes in midfield.
Ronaldo was behind most of United's best work, asking Schwarzer to parry his dipping shot, laying on a low cross that Wayne Rooney diverted just wide, and testing the goalkeeper's reach with a free kick that was touched over the crossbar.
It is just over a year since a heavy defeat here saw critics penning Sir Alex Ferguson's managerial obituary and Manchester United being widely deemed a team in serious decline.
Happily for Ferguson such doubters turned out to be appalling clairvoyants and, 14 months on from that humiliating 4-1 reverse, his impressively dominant side exacted revenge to open up a six-point lead at the top of the Premiership. A win for United at home against Manchester City on Saturday and Chelsea will go into their next fixture against Arsenal the following day nine points adrift. Meanwhile Gaizka Mendieta, the inspiration behind Middlesbrough's win last season and scorer of two goals, did not even make Gareth Southgate's bench after being informed he has "no future" on Teesside.
Back in the summer much the same was said about Cristiano Ronaldo and United in the wake of his World Cup spat with Wayne Rooney but the Portuguese winger is far too good for Ferguson to have seriously contemplated releasing and he arguably did more than any other visiting player to deconstruct Boro in a sometimes tetchy encounter overshadowed by accusations of 'cheating'.
Brilliant as Ronaldo frequently was he infuriated Teessiders by appearing to con referee Chris Foy into awarding a penalty – from which Louis Saha scored the opener – when he dived in the face of Mark Schwarzer's virtual non-challenge. Asked if he felt Ronaldo was a cheat Southgate said "Yes," before insisting: "Our keeper did everything to get out of the way. There was no contact but, once again, the lad has gone down.
"How many times are we going to see it? The lad's got a history of it. It was never a penalty and cost us the game. If players have the opportunity to stay on their feet and not play for a penalty then that's what they should do. It's very difficult for referees because it happens so quickly."
Even Ferguson guffawed when he was shown a replay of the penalty before turning straight faced and declaring: "Of course it was a clear cut penalty; it looked as if the keeper hasn't touched him but there was clearly intent. What is Cristiano supposed to do? He was going to get carted anyway. This was an important result at a place which, as we know from past experience, is difficult to play at."
There is a different Boro manager in situ since Ferguson's last visit but, judging by the hosts' strictly counter attacking modus operandi, he could have been forgiven for feeling it was a case of "new boss, same as the old boss".
Indeed Southgate's tactics are uncannily similar to those deployed during Steve McClaren's time in charge here, an impression only reinforced when Boro kicked off with a defensive quintet in which Robert Huth was swiftly forced to clear off the line from Louis Saha after the forward had been permitted a free header. Ryan Giggs should subsequently have propelled the Mancunians into the lead when he, uncharacteristically, spurned a fairly routine chance on the rebound after Mark Schwarzer merely parried Ronaldo's swerving shot.