Middlesbrough 1, Manchester United 2.

SIR Alex Ferguson has made no secret of his personal belief that Gareth Southgate should not have been given permission to continue in Premiership management without the required coaching qualifications.

So it was surprising to witness Southgate keep a tight lip when the legendary Manchester United boss invaded his opposite number's space when things got a little rough at the Riverside Stadium.

Arsene Wenger or Jose Mourinho are unlikely to have taken a similar approach when faced with one of their staunchest rivals. Yet Southgate, even after one controversial game-defining first half incident, did.

When Cristiano Ronaldo fell to the ground in the penalty area referee Chris Foy, without hesitation, pointed to the spot.

Slow motion replays have since shown that there was no contact between Ronaldo and any part of the diving body of goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer.

French striker Louis Saha converted the penalty into the furious Aussie's bottom right corner less than 20 minutes in and the league leaders had edged their way, albeit unfairly, ahead.

It was not until afterwards, when Southgate described his disgust at Ronaldo's style, that it became clear how strongly the rookie Middlesbrough manager felt about the whole scenario.

Yet, even after seeing the much-hated Portuguese winger also fall too easily to the ground after a challenge from George Boateng later in that half, Southgate still just kept his thoughts to himself when Ferguson remonstrated outside of his own technical area later in the match.

It was the first time one of the game's oldest and youngest managers have met each other in such roles and Southgate, still reeling after watching his side lose, has taken the experience on board.

"It is not the important thing for me whether it was my debut against Sir Alex," said the former Middlesbrough centre-back. "But I suppose you learn a few tricks of the trade in the way Sir Alex deals with the officials.

"He encroached into my technical area and I was tempted to tell him to get back into his own box but thought it way probably wise not to.

"I have been given a fantastic challenge in a very public environment and I have to learn the trade very quickly."

Of all the aspects and traits he is looking to take on board from Ferguson, there will be no rush from Southgate to follow the celebrated Scot's lead in backing Ronaldo this weekend.

Ferguson refused to criticise the 21-year-old's actions for winning the first half penalty on Teesside and even claimed it was a certain spot-kick. Southgate, though, is calling for action to be taken against players who deliberately look to deceive officials.

"I am not quite sure who the onus is on to keep things like that out of football but something has to be done because it is happening with that lad too many times," said the Middlesbrough manager, who has had mixed fortunes since taking over in the summer.

"It makes referees' jobs so difficult. I can't comment on the referee's decision because I don't know what his view of it was. He felt from the view he has that there was contact. But it is clear for everyone to see that there wasn't."

In the opening quarter of an hour Middlesbrough had looked unfazed against the Premiership's leaders, although there was no real danger to Edwin van der Sar's goal.

But United still managed to create decent chances. The best of which were when Saha's downward header was chested off the line by Robert Huth before Ryan Giggs headed wide from close range after Schwarzer could only parry a Ronaldo drive.

Shortly after those Saha then made the most of the opportunity he was handed from the penalty spot and United dominated the remainder of the first half.

The wing-back system that worked so well at Aston Villa a week earlier for Middlesbrough was not as effective, even though Abel Xavier did head a Stewart Downing free-kick against the post shortly after.

And after Wayne Rooney had shot wide and Ronaldo forced Schwarzer into a fantastic save with a stinging free-kick, the change of tactics after the break worked to Middlesbrough's advantage.

James Morrison, on for the unwell Jonathan Woodgate, injected more adventure into the home side's attack and they were rewarded on 66 minutes.

Aiyegbeni Yakubu's pass out wide to Downing was neatly nudged past England team-mate Gary Neville and centred by the Middlesbrough man. Gabriel Heinze's header dropped to the foot of Morrison at the back post and he struck first time into van der Sar's far corner.

It was a strike that should have been worth at least a point to Southgate's men on his first encounter with United as a manager. His predecessor Steve McClaren had a good record over the Red Devils in his five years in charge.

From ten league games with United during his reign McClaren won four. The last, a 4-1 crushing on Teesside, the pick of the bunch.

But the chances of a repeat quickly faded when, less than two minutes later, public enemy number one Ronaldo orchestrated the match-winning goal.

Having burst ahead of Andrew Taylor inside the Boro box, he did stay on his feet after rounding Schwarzer on this occasion and from the goal-line he rolled the back to the waiting Giggs.

The Welshman centred into the area, where Schwarzer was nowhere, and Scotland midfielder Fletcher rose ahead of the defence to nod in United's second from close range.

Morrison's name had not even had time to bellow around the public address system - it hardly mattered following confirmation of Fletcher's match-winner.

Middlesbrough's Darlington-born right-midfielder did go close from distance in the final stages but United gained the points that ensured they sit six points clear at the top of the Premiership this morning.

A victory against Manchester City this weekend will give them a nine-point cushion before they play Chelsea next week.

Southgate admits Ferguson has managed to assemble a squad capable of jostling the title from the Blues.

"We beat them here last year. And a year on the side has matured. They were quite a young team last season but they seem to have more steel about them," he said.

"There is not a lot to choose between them, but they have very different styles of play. You always feel United could hurt you more."

Middlesbrough, however, don't have the luxury of being in a title race and go to Tottenham tomorrow night knowing three points is essential if they are to stay clear of the relegation zone, even if Ronaldo's exploits did edge them nearer there again.