M United Alves-struck
Wayne Rooney's late equaliser rescued a point for Manchester United as they were pushed all the way by Middlesbrough in a pulsating 2-2 Premier League draw at the Riverside Stadium here Sunday.
Middlesbrough's 12 million pounds (24 million dollars) club record signing Afonso Alves finally came good to break his duck with cool finishes either side of half-time to threaten table-topping United with a rare defeat.
But Sir Alex Ferguson's men displayed their title credentials by hitting back through Rooney's 17th goal of the season with 16 minutes left, as the England striker swept home a low Park Ji-Sung cross from close range with the aid of a deflection off defender David Wheater.
The hard-earned draw was enough to push United three points clear at the top of the table as they close in on their 10th Premier League crown.
But their failure to beat a spirited Middlesbrough side means that second-placed Chelsea retain hopes of preventing the Old Trafford club from successfully defending their title.
United looked to be coasting thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo's early opener - the prolific winger's 37th goal of a quite amazing season.
But Middlesbrough, who have over the years developed a reputation for reserving their best performances against the Premier League big guns, showed tremendous character to force their way back and earn a fully merited draw.
Alves, who had failed to score in his first eight Boro appearances, brought an end to such an unwanted statistic 10 minutes before half-time to pull the hosts level.
Gary O'Neil's searching ball forward was flicked on by Jeremie Aliadiere, and despite the attentions of Michael Carrick, Alves lifted the ball over the advancing Edwin van der Sar from the edge of the area as United conceded in the Premier League for the first time in eight-and-a-quarter hours.
United were denied what appeared to be a strong penalty claim shortly before half-time when defender Andrew Taylor batted down Ronaldo's goal-bound shot.
And it looked like the decision would prove even more costly when Alves deservedly put Boro ahead in the 56th minute.
The South American was the first to react to Aliadiere's flick-on to outpace Rio Ferdinand - who was to later limp off to make him an injury worry for the forthcoming Champions League clash with Roma - before curling his shot beyond van der Sar from 10 yards.
Alves was agonisingly close to a hattrick moments afterwards when he came within inches from connecting with another Aliadiere flick just five yards out.
At a windswept ground where conditions were more suited to mid-winter than early spring, Middlesbrough's biggest crowd of the season - just under 34,000 - looked like witnessing a routine United victory when the league leaders took a 10th-minute lead.
Ronaldo has scored several stunning strikes this season, but this wasn't among them as Middlesbrough were left to rue gifting the leaders an early gift.
Ryan Giggs's over-hit corner found its way to Carrick loitering at the far post, where the midfielder easily beat Aliadiere to cut the ball back for an unmarked Ronaldo to apply a simple left-foot finish from five yards, his 27th goal in as many Premier League starts this season.
Only an untypically hurried finish on the half hour prevented the Portugal international from doubling his own and United's tally as he easily went past England Under-21 defender Wheater before slicing his shot wide from 12 yards.
Ronaldo was made to pay shortly after as Alves struck the first of his brace to help push Middlesbrough nine points clear of danger, all but ensuring their Premier League safety for another season.
In an end-to-end finale, Rooney and Boro substitute Tuncay Sanli went close, but a late winner for either side would have been grossly unfair as both had played their part in a memorable encounter.