Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Crime & Punishment

According to the FA, this...

...is not as bad as this man's girly slap

In an uncharacteristic deviation from sensible judgement, the FA today extended Jeremie Aliadiere's suspension to four games, ruling Boro's appeal as "frivolous". Therefore, Aliadiere is now receiving a more stringent sanction for his ludicrous mitted slap than Martin Taylor has for his amateurish attempt to amputate Eduardo's ankle. The Frenchman's ban starts tomorrow night against Sheffield United.

There are doubts over the Boro defence for the crucial FA Cup replay with Robert Huth still doubtful and David Wheater suspended. Jon Grounds and Seb Hines are likely to plug the gaps. Elsewhere, there could be a belated chance for Afonso Alves to make his full debut after a couple of bemused substitute appearances.

There was at least the welcome news that Stewart Downing's new five year contract has finally been signed. Inexplicably maligned by many, including at times a disturbingly vocal minority of his own club's fans, its not any coincidence that again Boro's best form has been inspired by an on-song Downing. Lets hope he's left to prosper at the Riverside for some time yet.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Fernando gives Boro Torr-id time

Its Torres again - bugger

An afternoon of promise at Anfield ended in defeat yesterday. Abject defensive errors allowed Liverpool to steal all three points in a game where Boro had looked comfortable leaders. However, at the risk of sounding like Paul Collingwood in the aftermath of another England pounding, there were plenty of positives to be taken from the game.

As Gareth Southgate himself states, the real disappointment at not taking at least a point is a measure of the progress made in recent months. The team posed a real threat against a nominal member of the self-styled 'Big 4'.

Liverpool's patchwork defence was quickly exposed. A pitiful offside trap failed, leaving the returning Tuncay Sanli at the head of a queue of Boro players to nod past Reina. Thereafter, Boro seemed in total control, composed at the back and busy in midfield. The home side were growing frustrated, their passing wayward. Steven Gerrard displayed an uncanny knack of picking out the bloke in row five with his endless Hollywood balls.

Boro's serenity was broken by a horrible error by the increasingly erratic Julio Arca. A ludicrous attempt to head the ball back to Schwarzer sent Fernando Torres clean through and the Spaniard's composed finish was inevitable. Much the same as it was when he was left a free shot twenty-five yards out. Advantage to deficit in one torrid minute.

A composed start to the second half was undone by another calamitous error. Wheater dithered over a long ball while Schwarzer inexplicably raced from his goal. Torres rolled the ball into a forlorn, gaping goalmouth to comeplete his hat trick. Having performed strongly for much of the opening hour, Boro trailed 3-1 and were in danger of a dicking.

The response was pleasingly resolute. Boro stuck at their task and Arca played a magnificent pass to cut open the correct defence this time. Stewart Downing capped another strong display with a well-taken goal. Any chance of an equaliser was undermined by Jeremie Aliadiere's foolish dismissal. While the contact was minimal and no worse than Mascherano's provocation, Aliadiere gave the referee a decision to make, and at Anfield, they tend to go one way.

Player Ratings

1 Schwarzer 6
Solid enough save for howler for Torres' third.
2 Young 6 Dealt with lively Babel well for the most part.
40 Grounds 8* Another solid display. Promising.
31 Wheater 6 Could have closed down Torres for second goal.
6 Pogatetz 7 Can't be faulted for Liverpool goals.
4 O'Neil 6 Struggled to make an impact.
19 Downing 7 Once again, Boro's most potent attacking threat.
10 Rochemback 6 Tidy rather than influential.
3 Arca 6 Excellent pass for Downing's goal but too many errors.
17 Tuncay 7 Very bright first half. Faded.
11 Aliadiere 6 Hard running but struggled to make an impact. Stupid red card.

Its Sheffield United in the crucial FA Cup replay next. Another obstacle cleared on the path to Wembley and the disappointment of Anfield will be forgotten. Wheater and Aliadiere will be suspended but with Robert Huth returning and Mido and Afonso Alves waiting in the wings, Boro should be able to absorb those losses.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Blades drawn for Robbo

Robbo in happier times (looking surprisingly like Gareth Barry too)

Its FA Cup time again this weekend. Nearly 6,000 Boro fans will be making the short trip to Bramall Lane on Sunday, hopefully bereft of balloons. With at least 3 lower league teams guaranteed to be in the draw for the quarter-finals, dreams of a first trip to Wembley are growing.

It seems like aeons since our last trip to Sheffield United, in the bleak early weeks of Gareth Southgate's tenure. It was just 18 months ago but so many players in key roles have already been consigned to Boro history - Woodgate, Yakubu, Viduka, even Gaizka Mendieta managed 10 minutes in that game.

Your trusty correspondent was suffering very painful six-a-side related knee knack at the time so even Yakubu's equaliser was not so much a moment of joy as a desperate struggle to remain upright. Phil Jagielka sealed the Blades' first Premier League win with a thumping injury time strike and a long winter seemed ahead. Since then, things have got a lot better before getting worse then better again.

Poor old Bryan Robson. Things just seem to keep getting worse for him. The much maligned former Boro boss has been dismissed, a sop to the mutinous Bramall Lane crowd. If the abuse Robson receives for his work at Boro and, to a lesser extent, West Brom is a little harsh, its hard to dispute Blades fans' grievances over a dismal season. Promotion was expected but United languish 16th in the Championship. In their last home game, bottom-of-the-table Scunthorpe played all but the opening ten minutes a man down but still emerged with a point from a goalless draw.

This all makes it hard to judge how the mood will be on Sunday. Its hard to know if the brooding discontent of the home fans will be erased by removing Robson or to judge how well ex-assistant and former Leeds boss Kevin Blackwell will be received. This all suggests that scoring the opening goal could be the killer blow, puncturing fragile self-belief.

This could be easier said than done, with more pressure on the increasingly impressive Jeremie Aliadiere. Tuncay Sanli is still a week or two from fitness while Mido is a month and several pounds from such a state. It seems like Afonso Alves' introduction to the English game will continue to be gradual. That leaves Lee Dong Gook. Bugger.

Still, with solid away form intact and no defeat since New Year's Day, Boro should have the confidence and ability to pass this test.

Prediction: Sheff Utd 0 Boro 1

It seems the Boro taste for ludicrous Uefa Cup performances lives on in northern Scotland. On-loan midfielder Josh Walker scored against Bayern Munich, and Aberdeen held on for 2-2 having led twice!