Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Boro win; Alves signs

Its been a tense but productive week at the Riverside. Wigan were eventually dispatched on Tuesday night in a crucial relegation head-to-head before Boro completed the record signing of Brazilian international striker Afonso Alves for a reported £12m.

The Alves saga has dominated the transfer window and rumbled on until 11:30 on Thursday night. The bleating of AZ president Dirk Scheringa suggests there may still be more to come, although it seems unlikely anything will result from the Dutchman's posturing. While there is an undoubted gamble in investing an eight figure sum for the first time in a player with no Premier League experience, hopes are high that Alves can provide the cutting edge the team have been missing. With a goal scoring record in the Eredivisie that beats Ronaldo, Romario and van Nistelrooy, Alves has the potential. Its clearly enough to convince Gareth Southgate to stake his managerial reputation on Alves delivering.

Alves was at the Riverside on Tuesday and must have been pleased at the creativity his new team mates showed. For the opening half hour, Wigan were repeatedly carved open. Tuncay Sanli's deft turns and twisting runs were as thrilling as his finishing was awful. Doubtless spurred on by Fabio Capello's presence, Stewart Downing tormented Wigan down the left. It was Downing's flighted ball over the top that allowed Jeremie Aliadiere to notch a belated first goal at the Riverside, emphatically beating Kirkland with a firm left footed shot.

Once again, Boro suffered from not taking their chances while on top. Wigan should have been out of sight by half time but clung on to make it a nervy second half. Boro were indebted to Mark Schwarzer for a terrific save from Emile Heskey's header that sealed three points.

Its a trip to Newcastle tomorrow, up the world's largest staircase for the worst view and most fascist stewards in the Premier League. No doubt they'll be turning a deaf ear to the inevitably droll paedophilia jibes from the home crowd. If Mido plays, expect more political commentary, the Toon Army having been outraged by the way the Egyptian took their racist abuse with good humour at the Riverside. With Alves without his visa and Tuncay's hamstring thoroughly twanged, it seems likely Mido will have a role to play.

The Keegan 'revolution' seems to coming off the rails already, with the farcical recruitment of Dennis Wise and no goals scored in three games under the liberating, attacking influence of the (latest) Geordie messiah. With Boro's impressive recent away form, this could be the year to do something about our depressingly poor record at St. James' Park.

Prediction: Newcastle 1 Boro 1

Monday, 28 January 2008

Stag Party

Its been a very busy few days with progress in the FA Cup, more rumour-mongering and a crucial relegation clash on the horizon. How the club negotiates the rest of this week will have a huge bearing on the remainder of the season.

1. Up for the Cup

One concrete development over the last few days was Boro's progress to the last 16 of the FA Cup. Mansfield may be in deep trouble at the foot of League 2 but the passage to the fifth round was far from easy. Gareth Southgate decided to ring the changes and few of the players who came in excelled.

In a truly staggering development, Dong Gook Lee opened the scoring, rifling in from close range after Adam Johnson's corner. Sadly, the Korean reverted to type afterwards, his existence barely registering. He also managed a trademark miss with an open goal after clever play from Aliadiere on the right flank. The Frenchman's performance was full of intelligent running that was undermined by the failure of his colleagues to provide adequate support.

The midfield stand-ins failed to make a case for the removal of O'Neil or Downing. Cattermole's display was charcterised by typical ill-discipline while Adam Johnson's twisting runs were too often curtailed before a telling contribution could be made.

Despite a couple of scares, victory was rarely in doubt although it was not until the dying moments before a second goal sealed the game. Buxton's own goal came after one of the few moves of Premier League quality Boro managed.

Its the short trip to Bramall Lane for round five and a clash with Bryan Robson. We must be wary - 'Balloongate' suggests he's developed much more tactical ingenuity since his Boro days.

2. Woodgate to Spurs

It seems the tide has turned with Woodgate's relations with the Boro fans. With rumours circulating of Newcastle's interest on Saturday, a significant minority of Boro's travelling fans at Field Mill were vocal in their condemnation. Despite Keegan's intervention and a rumoured bid from Arsenal (denied by Arsene Wenger), it seems Woodgate is heading to Spurs.

Few Boro fans believe the decision to allow Woodgate to leave has been made on a football or financial basis. Whether we'll ever know how much truth is in the murmurings of Woodgate's off-field conduct is doubtful. Southgate's pointed comments about Woodgate having to decide 'whether he wants to be part of what we're doing' confirm suspicions Woodgate's attitude is the problem. Its a brave decision but only time will show whether its the correct move.

3. Downing's Mr. 10%

Football agents generally enjoy the kind of public respect and affection afforded to paedophiles and murderers. And with good reason. Odious Geordie parasite Ian Elliott has again been mouthing off about Stewart Downing. Today, Elliott launched another self-serving rant in his continued feud with Boro's management. It seems the refusal to sanction Downing's departure, denying Elliott a major payday, has riled the Geordie leech into claiming Downing will not sign a new contract at the Riverside.

Despite Elliott's shameless hawking of his client this month, there's been no interest beyond Spurs' muted approach. The fact remains Downing is rated much higher on Teesside than elsewhere, so his immediate future is unlikely to be anywhere else. Whether Elliott will be so welcome at the club is doubtful. Steve McClaren's agent may be able to tell him how Steve Gibson prefers to deal with truculent agents.

4. Afonso near, yet so far

The official site is reporting that the appeal hearing for Afonso Alves' work permit application will be held on Wednesday. Thats on the basis that a deal has been concluded with Heerenveen and Alves. Reports claim this will be done in the next 24 hours. As they have for the past fortnight...

5. There is a game tomorrow...

Amidst the excitement over the FA Cup and the endless transfer tittle-tattle, the fact Boro have a crucial Premier League fixture tomorrow has almost been forgotten. Wigan visit the Riverside two points in arrears on an evening packed with clashes between the league's strugglers. Gary O'Neil and Tuncay Sanli should be back in contention for the game, although Jonathan Grounds may once again be pressed into action if Emmanuel Pogatetz is ruled out.

Prediction: Boro 2 Wigan 1 - anything less than 3 points can't be contemplated.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Woodgate on his way?

Jonathan Woodgate finds the door. What happens next?

Jonathan Woodgate's days at the Riverside seem numbered after Boro reportedly accepted a £7m+ offer from Tottenham for the defender. Its a move that has divided opinion.

There are convincing arguments for striving to keep Woodgate at the club. Fully fit and on form, he's the best defender at the club. Selling an England international will hardly mollify those fans and players who feel the club lacks ambition. With the team tottering two points above the drop zone, this should be a time of adding to the squad rather than selling off a talented player.

However, it seems Gareth Southgate has been swayed by the arguments for selling Woodgate. Centre back is one of the few areas where the squad has real strength. Robert Huth has excelled since his return from injury, David Wheater has been the find of the Premier League season and Emmanuel Pogatetz won player of the year last season from the heart of the defence. Woodgate has been struggling to justify a first team place in recent weeks. With other areas of the team in need of urgent reinforcement, the decision to cash in on Woodgate becomes more understandable. There are quality alternatives in our squad; and there's Chris Riggott too.

Woodgate has failed to maintain last season's imperious form since making his move from Real Madrid permanent. For the vast majority of 06/07, Woodgate exuded composure and class, producing impeccable perfomances on a consistent basis. Sadly, this year has seen displays ranging from the average to the inept. There's been the odd reminder of his talents, such as at Portsmouth, but they've become all too rare. Most of his displays have been competent but spoiled by lapses of concentration. Some have been frankly awful, with the Villa molestation at the Riverside probably the worst. Woodgate's efforts to prevent Gabriel Agbonlahor's third were embarrassing.

Its hard to pinpoint exactly what has gone wrong. Woodgate has struggled for fitness this year, never looking fully recovered from his summer operation after being pitched in against Newcastle in August. However, Woodgate has had an apalling fitness record throughout his a career, and barely trained during his successful run last year, yet has rarely struggled for form when available.

His attitude has been increasingly questioned. Some reports have suggested the decision to make Julio Arca skipper after Boateng's demotion irritated Woodgate. His recreational history is too long and potentially libellous to go through here but its safe to say hopes he'd come back from Spain a reformed character seem somewhat naive.

Its impossible to know how accurate the murmurings about Woodgate's fitness and behaviour are. That makes its very hard to judge whether Southgate would be right to let Woodgate go. The fact that the club seem to have decided to allow him to move on without much of a fight may be telling.

One thing for certain is that this transfer window is shaping up to be a defining period of Gareth Southgate's stewardship. The McClaren fingerprints are being quickly erased from the line-up. The decision to let Woodgate go would be a huge gamble. There is a fair chance that Juande Ramos, an obviously shrewd manager, could revive Woodgate's form provided he can maintain fitness. That would leave Spurs with a bargain and Southgate looking foolish.

That said, the passage of time may show that Southgate has picked the correct moment to cash in on a player who is approaching 30, injury prone and in dismal form. The protracted Afonso Alves saga finally seems to be inching to a conclusion, and if a £12m deal can be sealed, that would be as momentous a decision as that regarding Woodgate's future. Southgate can't afford to get it wrong.

**Its Mansfield Town, 91st in the Football League, tomorrow lunchtime in the 4th round of the FA Cup. Gary O'Neil and Mido remain doubtful but Julio Arca should be back. Lets hope Gareth remembers the Notts County farce of his early managerial days and plays as strong a side as possible.

Prediction: Mansfield 0 Boro 2

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Boro rue missed chances

Wheat as a nut

Boro contrived to take only a point from yesterday's trip to Ewood Park. Having spurned a succession of openings, Blackburn inevitably equalised from one of their very rare attacks to gain a richly undeserved draw.

Its just one defeat from seven games on the road for Gareth Southgate and it wasn't hard to see why. Mark Schwarzer was unruffled and barely active as the back four again defended with aggression and composure. Luke Young quelled any threat from the anonymous Morten Gamst Pedersen, whose stock continues to fall after another vapid display. Despite the continued absence of Jonathan Woodgate, Jason Roberts and Roque Santa Cruz were comfortably contained by Robert Huth and David Wheater. Indeed, Wheater proved to be a more potent threat than the strikers on either side.

It was Wheater who gave Boro an early lead with a firm back-post header from Stewart Downing's free kick. If Blackburn could consider themselves unfortunate to concede that free kick, their luck improved after the break.

Fabio Rochemback replaced skipper Julio Arca, who took a kick and failed to emerge for the second half. The Brazilian made an impact immediately, arcing the ball over the Blackburn defence twice for the onrushing Aliadiere. On the first occasion, he dragged his shot wide of Friedel's far post. Sent clear again, he opted to slide the ball across the goalmouth for Tuncay. The Turk inexplicably miscued when presented with an open goal.

Wheater was extremely unlucky not to have a second goal, his header smashing against the crossbar from Gary O'Neil's flighted cross. Boro's profligacy was becoming farcical and the home side punished this wastefulness in one of their rare forays into red territory. Roberts' mishit shot screwed across the area allowing Matt Derbyshire, perennial goalscorer against Boro, to once again inflict pain with a simple finish.

Despite the frustration of losing the lead, Boro continued to push. Jeremie Aliadiere had the pick of the late chances in injury time but failed to hit the target with a close range header from Rochemback's centre.

Once again, Boro came out of a game feeling robbed. Despite turning in a performance worthy of the Premier League's better teams, the lead over the bottom three is a precarious two points. Few teams at the arse end of the division are capable of the quality shown yesterday but relegation will remain a concern until performance is turned into points, particularly at home. With Wigan, Fulham, Reading and Derby next up at the Riverside, the opportunity to improve our dismal home form is there. Several difficult away fixtures remain so victories on Teesside will be imperative to hopes of climbing the table.

Man of the Match: David Wheater

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

See you in court

Alves on a pitch - but not the Riverside

The relentless Afonso Alves transfer saga continues to rumble on, with a Dutch FA hearing the latest hurdle to be cleared. Alves is believed to have agreed personal terms with Boro and negotiations over the fee are ongoing, according to reports. He certainly was at the Riverside, as a weekend of paintstaking detective work on Boro's message boards eventually established despite a hurculean cover-up attempt.

The interest of Heerenveen's Eredivisie rivals AZ Alkmaar continues to muddy the waters. A hearing will be held at 7:30pm tomorrow (Wednesday) to determine the validity of AZ's claim on Alves' signature. Its unclear whether Keith Lamb is flying over with his best Ally McBeal-esque pencil skirt to make an unconventional intervention. Its an enduring image though.

A fee of €18million was apparently agreed between the Dutch clubs and AZ claim that Alves agreed a contract. However, it seems Heerenveen haven't signed anything to confirm the deal. Some reports have suggested that the whole deal was a pre-contract which was invalidated after the January 5th deadline. Its safe to say we never had to bother with these complications signing Jason Euell.

Elsewhere, The Independent was still insisting Lyon's Brazilian striker Fred is destined for the Riverside yesterday morning, despite most other sources insisting he will choose between PSG and Spurs. The Gazette has claimed an official approach for Portsmouth's out-of-favour Matty Taylor. There's barely time to mention the mooted move for Motherwell's young forward Ross McCormack. No, me neither.

The rumour mill is still suggesting Stewart Downing's days at the Boro are numbered. His Mr 10% Ian Elliott released an embarrassingly crude 'come-and-get-me' plea to Tottenham outside St James' Park yesterday. Its unclear whether Downing actually wants a move or a substantial increase to his contract, which still has 2 ½ years to run. Either would explain Elliott's nauseating drivel. Elliott is a Newcastle season ticket holder and also represents Downing's understudy Adam Johnson...

Reports have suggested that Spurs are attempting to chuck cack-handed buffoon Paul Robinson into the deal. Fortunately, it seems Boro have no interest in solving their goalkeeping problems with a reject from a side whose defensive record betters only Reading and Derby.

This has already feels like Boro's busiest January window yet, depsite the only confirmed deal being Andrew Davies making his loan at Southamption permanent. Keeping up with the latest story is like a full time job (which probably explains why I'm barely doing my full time job). Its understandable that Gareth Southgate is already looking forward to February 1st. If the club can pick its way through the January minefield, we might even have something to look forward to beyond then.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Heer(enveen) today, gone tomorrow?

"How much?"

The transfer window has barely blown open and today the rumour mill went into overdrive. Several reports are suggesting Boro have agreed terms with Heerenveen's Brazilian striker Afonso Alves and will seal the deal when a fee can be agreed, most likely in the region of £14million.

Gareth Southgate has remained tight-lipped on the situation, refusing to comment on reports that suggest Alves may even arrive by the end of the week. However, there is a growing feeling that this most ludicrous of transfer stories might not be bollocks after all.

Keith Lamb has insisted Boro do not need to sell Stewart Downing to finance the deal. If the money can be raised, it seems Alves is keen on proving his worth in the Premier League. Heerenveen have confirmed they've "closed the book" on his time in Holland. After this spectacular rant, its fair to assume Alves is still keen to depart.

Boro have also been linked with other strikers. Sky Sports have claimed Boro today met with the agent of Lyon's wantaway Brazil international Fred. Meanwhile, the Times have suggested Southgate is interested in Shaktar Donetsk's Italian forward and Marxist lecturer Cristiano Lucarelli. The club have thankfully taken time to pooh-pooh suggestions that they would make a move for creaking, ancient Turk Hakan Sukur.

Meanwhile, Southgate pulled Mido out of his planned appearance for the reserves, although permanantly crocked defender Matthew Bates managed an hour without breaking his leg. Its unclear whether Mido will still make the bench for Saturday's game with Liverpool, as previously planned.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

The Wheat goes on

Feed the chin and he will score

Boro secured their place in the 4th round of the FA Cup after coming through a tricky tie at Bristol City with a 2-1 win. David Wheater ended a flowing move to secure the win at Ashton Gate after Boro had once again conceded first.

Gareth Southgate had to contend with a severely depleted squad. Jonathan Woodgate and Jeremie Aliadiere failed late fitness tests, in addition to Taylor, Boateng, O'Neil, Shawky and Mido all being unavailable. Adam Johnson replaced Gary O'Neil on the right side of a five man midfield bolstered by Lee Cattermole. Ben Hutchison made his first start as a lone striker with Tuncay Sanli only a substitute.

Hutchinson had Boro's best effort of a promising start, cutting in from the left before his shot was deflected wide. Hope didn't last too long, as Bristol City took a 19th minute lead. The Boro defence failed to deal with a simple City free-kick and Liam Fontaine poked home from close range. This boosted the Robins' confidence while Hutchinson was growing increasingly isolated up front.

The equaliser came ten minutes before half time and owed much to the ineptitude of home keeper Adriano Basso. Stewart Downing hit a well-struck shot from 10 yards that Basso should of comfortably stopped. However, the ball squirmed under the Brazilian's body, gifting Boro a vital equaliser.

After the break, the visitors began to show their authority. City's attacks were more sporadic but remained dangerous, Marvin Elliott spurning a simple chance after Schwarzer spilled. Boro looked much more composed going forward after Tuncay replaced the ineffective Johnson. In 24 minutes, the Turkish forward showed more skill and flair than either side had hitherto been able to muster, snapping shots away and committing defenders with regularity.

The Turk wasn't involved, however, in the fluent counter-attack that led to the winner. Luke Young slipped the ball into the path of Cattermole on the right side. His intelligent cut back allowed David Wheater, inexplicably charging into the penalty area, to coolly stroke the ball into the corner.

Wheater and his defensive partner Robert Huth were able to deal with the Robins' subsequent attacks with some ease. A place in round 4 secured, and with many Premier League teams humiliated (and I thought Yakubu left to win things!), perhaps the road to Wembley is opening up again.

One price of victory will be a weakened midfield against Liverpool next week. Lee Cattermole and Julio Arca both received deserved yellow cards for a pair of cynical fouls which rule them out of the game. Mohamed Shawky is in Ghana on international duty and George Boateng may not even be a Boro player by next Saturday. The return of Gary O'Neil will be a boon.

Overall, this was a disciplined, battling performance, with Boro finally showing a ruthless edge by exploiting the opportunity given by Basso's error. Attacking flair was largely absent until Tuncay's arrival but, with Wheater's goal, Boro produced the one real moment of quality in the game.

Man of the Match: David Wheater - solid at the back and a goal that evoked memories of Beckenbaeur, Baresi and Sammer. Ahem.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Bye George?

Gareth Southgate has named his squad for tomorrow's FA Cup third round tie at Bristol City. The exclusion of George Boateng suggests media reports that the Dutchman's days are numbered could be accurate. The manager has said he doesn't want Boateng to leave. However, with Gary O'Neil suspended, Mohammed Shawky departed for the African Cup of Nations and Lee Cattermole in the Black Bull, the omission of the (ex?) captain is intriguing.

Boateng was also left out of the squad for the New Year's Day surrender against Everton. Fabio Rochemback returned straight to the starting XI for that game. He failed to impress, looking ponderous and combining with Stewart Downing to carve open the Boro defence for James McFadden's goal. Huge pressure is being placed on new skipper Julio Arca to maintain his fitness, which doesn't bode well given his injury-hit 2007.

Things aren't looking to certain elsewhere in the team. Jeremie Aliadiere and Mido are both missing again, although the Egyptian's long-awaited should come next week against Liverpool. Tuncay will once again be required to extract the last drops of footballing talent from the gnarled, barren Lee Dong Gook. This really must be the last time the breathtakingly inept Gook (no league goals this season) is entrusted with a starting place. Once Aliadiere (one goal and glass legs) and Mido (two goals and difficulty walking) return, things will surely get better.

At the back, Southgate must decide whether to recall leading man David Wheater. Robert Huth was superb in the brave win at Portsmouth and largely ineffective against Everton, much like the whole team. The £6m German should get the nod alongside the infuriatingly inconsistent Jonathan Woodgate.

Behind them, Mark Schwarzer's contract expires in the summer. Few expect him to stay past the summer and plenty of Boro fans would be happy for his departure to be brought forward. The mooted replacement Thomas Sorenson hardly inspires confidence however.

Last year, the team faced similar worries. The FA Cup helped turn around our season, including a highly unconvincing penalty win over Bristol City in the 4th round. Julio Arca has already stressed the importance of achieving a repeat, preferrably without last year's energy-sapping replays. Maybe Mido, or some exotic new striker like Rob Hulse, can repeat Mark Viduka's New Year goal flurry. Maybe this could be the start of another cup run to raise the spirits of grumbling fans. Maybe Jonathan Woodgate can permanently rediscover the form he mislaid at the end of last season. The consequences of failure on one or all of these counts could be disastrous.

Prediction: 1-1. I'll have a replay and be grateful for it.