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.

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