Monday, 13 August 2007

Roque horror show

Boro's patched up backline demonstrate the concept of marking

Boro kicked off the new season with a curious display, showing considerable promise in the first half before folding dismally after the break. The £20m worth of sidelined defensive talent was conspicuous by its absence as Blackburn broke Boro's brittle backline without a great deal of effort.

The impressions from the first half were positive. Gareth Southgate's pre-season claims that the team would play more pacy, attacking football seemed to be coming to pass. One particularly rapid break early on should have ended in a debut goal for the generally impressive Jeremie Aliadiere, or 'the French lad' as he has been tagged by half-cut Boro fans. His early link-up play with Tuncay ('the Turkish feller') bodes well. There were also good chances for David Wheater, who has already demonstrated the potent threat his colossal height presents at set pieces. Julio Arca and Stewart Downing provided the creative heartbeat, just as they did during last season's promising post-Christmas period. Even George Boateng showed attacking intent.

The problem was that, despite so many positives, Blackburn went in at half time with half a chance. The only goal came from Stewart Downing's free kick, which eluded Friedel's drive after pantomime villain Robbie Savage wimped out of blocking the shot. Few of Boro's chances fell to the largely ponderous Yakubu. We must hope that the Nigerian's equally voluptuous partner/replacement Mido will provide more presence up front.

The game changed after the break. Boro, having been so assertive and vibrant in the first half, grew passive. Tuncay, Aliadiere and Yakubu became increasingly peripheral. Blackburn also demonstrated a level of strength in depth that we cannot boast at this stage.

The equaliser came after Benni McCarthy made his first meaningful contribution to the game by inexplicably collapsing in the middle of the pitch. The South African striker went down after an innocuous challenge by Davies. He was replaced by debutant Roque Santa Cruz, a man widely mocked in Germany for his inadequacy during a splinter-inducing decade on the Bayern Munich bench. Within two minutes, Downing's feeble efforts to block the cross were matched by Riggott's marking and Santa Cruz nodded in.

The warning was not heeded. Matt Derbyshire soon replaced the hopeless Jason Roberts, ran onto the pitch and curling an absolute peach past Schwarzer without the merest hindrance from the home side.

Friedel did well to save Wheater's header during a late scramble but it was too little, too late. Defeat clutched from the jaws of victory after a truly alarming second half display. Home defeats such as this do not bode well. The lumbering presence of Titus Bramble on the horizon provides some reassurance. A repeat of last season's victory at the JJB would be a huge morale boost. With no particularly difficult fixtures until October, Boro cannot afford to write games off until the likes of Woodgate return.

Player Ratings

Schwarzer 6
Not a great deal to do. Not much chance for either goal.
Davies 6 Same as usual - defending solid, distribution awful.
Taylor 6 Solid as ever.
Wheater 6
Shows some promise despite occasionally betraying inexperience.
Riggott 5 As the senior partner of the two centre backs, just not good enough.
Tuncay 6 Bright in the first half but increasingly sidelined. No real end product.
Downing 7* Kept going when the team flagged. Looked on form.
Boateng 7 Surprisingly positive going forward. Energtic riposte to his critics.
Arca 7 Excellent before the break but struggled to maintain influence.
Yakubu 6 Looked disinterested. Passing was patchy.
Aliadiere 7 Showed promise and real pace.

Friday, 10 August 2007

One day to go....

Yakubu spots an unmanned exit at the Riverside...

There is just one day left until the start of the 2007/08 season. The excitement is palpable and the next 24 hours promise to drag in a manner even Jack Bauer would find unnerving. Tomorrow afternoon Blackburn arrive and Gareth Southgate and his side have their first opportunity to prove the critics wrong. Boro have been widely tipped for relegation, mainly by those whose knowledge of the team extends to the 30 seconds at the end of last year's Match of the Days showing Mark Viduka scoring. The mood of pessimism is contagious. Season ticket sales are at their lowest since the move to the Riverside. Despite the insistence of player, manager, chief executive, chairman and tea lady that Yakubu is staying, the reports that the, ahem, 24 year old Nigerian is on his way continue. The relief of finally having some football will be matched when the transfer window finally swings shut.

It would be very easy to join in the pervasive gloom surrounding the club. However, it would doing a disservice to a young manager who has continued to impress in difficult circumstances.

Gareth Southgate was hardly first choice amongst fans last summer. Even the man himself seemed surprised to be given the job. Nonetheless, after a difficult start, the team improved over the course of the season. The decision to employ Julio Arca in midfield, whether by luck or design, changed the dynamic of the team. Ultimately, the soul-crushing defeat in the FA Cup at the hands of twinkle toes Ronaldo and another compliant referee, coupled with Arca's injuries saw the team lose their way over the final weeks of the year. However, the opening months of 2007 finally saw a settled team that had Southgate's fingerprints on it. Maintaining the bulk of that line-up will be crucial.

It has been a difficult pre-season in that respect. The central defensive pillars Woodgate and Pogatetz start the season injured. The news that the colossal Pogatetz could be out until Christmas does not bode well, particularly with Robert Huth, the natural replacement, once again in residence on the treatment table. As Pogatetz demonstrated last year, such crises can be the making of fringe players. With Woodgate soon to return to a defence bolstered by a solid full-back pairing of Young and Taylor, this is the opportunity for the likes of Davies, Wheater and Riggott to emerge from the shadows, as Pogatetz did this time last year.

Things look a little better further forward. The perplexing sale of James Morrison notwithstanding, the midfield looks more balanced than it has for many a year. George Boateng was far from his best and looked off the pace a lot of the time. However, the captain's performances improved towards the end of the season. Boateng should be feeling pressure from Lee Cattermole. This has to be the year Cattermole makes his claim for a regular central position. Fabio Rochemback's Boro career seemed over in January but a strong finish to last year mean he has one more chance to prove that he is enigmatic rather than just a bit shit.

Julio Arca starts the season fit. Arca was the man, moreso than even Woodgate and Viduka, responsible for last season's post-Christmas resurgence. He is the heartbeat of the team, the one player in the middle with the skill and vision to cut the opposition open. He also megged Ronaldo. The cult hero now needs to stay centre stage.

Stewart Downing has enjoyed a good pre-season and will be joined on the flanks by Tuncay Sanli. The prospect of the unfairly maligned Downing and the tireless Tuncay pounding down the flanks promise to provide an attacking balance missing since the days of Ripley and Hendrie.

If Southgate can keep Yakubu content at the Riverside, we already have the 15 goal striker necessary to keep away from trouble. Aliadiere and Dong Gook Lee are somewhat less convincing but will be given a chance to make their name. Southgate is also pondering gambling on Spurs' Mido. Some say he is frequently overweight, moody and only turns it on when it suits him. He sounds like an ideal replacement for Mark Viduka.

It would be foolish to dismiss the prospect of the team struggling this year. There is no doubt that without Yakubu our forward line would like worryingly weak. However, there are enough reasons for optimism. Tuncay could well turn out to be one of the most astute signings of the summer. If Woodgate, Arca and Downing can be kept fit, there should be too much quality in the team to get embroiled in a relegation battle. If some of the unproven squad members can step up to the challenge, there is no reason why this club, the only cup winners outside the top four in years, European finalists only 15 months ago, can once again prove the critics wrong.

Prediction for tomorrow:

Boro 3 Blackburn 2

Some errant defending from a new defence causes worry but Tuncay steams in with a late winner.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Boroblog Predictions 2007/08

BoroBlog, earlier

With the Charity Shield days away and the final touches being applied to Boro's meticulous preparations for the new season it seems as good a time as any to scan an eye over the competition. The reasons why I don't agree that our 'out of his depth' manager will be leading us to Championship ignominy will be expanded upon before the season opener against Blackburn. For now, this is a unique chance to be rude about all of the rest of the Premiership in the same post.

Eyes down and don't look too hard at this come May:

1 Chelsea With last season's pantomine feuds seemingly put to bed and unquestionably the best squad in the league, they are the team to beat. They might even scrape a point at the Riverside this season.

2 Manchester United Fergie may well be more interested in Europe than another league title. Are these multi-million pound teenagers good enough to replace Scholes and Giggs?

3 Liverpool If they can keep in touch for the first 6 weeks of the season they have a chance. Recent history suggests not.

4 Arsenal Despite a difficult summer, the liberation from the ego of the increasingly overbearing Henry could be a blessing in disguise. Likely to be a tight squeeze though.

5 Tottenham Keep on improving but defence is a bit soft if (when?) King is injured.

6 Blackburn Well organised and should start well (hopefully after August 11th).

7 Everton Dreary to watch but hard to beat.

8 Aston Villa Its about time Martin O'Neill lived up to his reputation - if he can, Villa should emerge somewhere nearer the top of the mediocre midtable dross.

9 Portsmouth A lot will depend on Nugent. If he fires, they will be top half again.

10 Boro
Alright, maybe this is a bit optimistic.

11 Newcastle
They manage to get rid of Shepherd and Bramble in one summer and the fans still moan. Expect the pantomine to continue - a fiver says Joey Barton will be jailed before Christmas.

12 West Ham
Having escaped relegation in very dodgy circumstances, they look set to lose the man who kept them up single-handedly. They have also lost Benayoun and Reo-Coker, key players in their run to the 2006 cup final (bastards!). The replacements are overpriced, overpaid and a bit crap.

13 Manchester City
Sven has been splashing the cash far and wide but its hard to know how this obscure collection of foreigners will do compared to last season's woeful outfit. Bianchi has the whiff of the Corrado Grabbis about him.

14 Reading
Intelligently managed by Steve Coppell, they could struggle to replicate last season's efforts, particularly without Sidwell. Too good to go down though.

15 Bolton
With Fat Sam leaving in typically graceful fashion and Anelka threatening to do one, they will drop like a stone. Looked increasingly flakey last year, the departure of Ben Haim will not help.

16 Fulham
If you were going to pinch all the players from any national side, then Norn Iron would be pretty far down the list. Kamara and Healy are a big gamble.

17 Derby
Being written off will only increase the spirit of a side big on graft. Earnshaw has the potential to reach double figures and that could be just enough for survival.

18 Sunderland
Keane bought a shedload of Championship players last year and has bought two more, overpriced ones in Chopra and Richardson. May not be quite as amusing as the 19 point vintage but expect to be entertained and for Keane's overblown reputation to take a kicking.

19 Birmingham
Did not convince when getting promoted. Signings this summer have been based on quantity rather than quality. Don't expect Steve Bruce to survive past Christmas.

20 Wigan
Utter dross. Having miraculously escaped relegation due to the opposition's ineptitude last year, their luck must run out. Although the Bradford reign of Chris Hutchings and the entire career of Titus Bramble suggest they are making their own luck already.

FA Cup - Manchester United
Carling Cup - Arsenal