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.

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