Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Bouncing back?

If the Everton game was the footballing equivalent of driving to Dundee barefoot gorging on (medium-sized) Toblerones, then last night's 1-0 defeat to Manchester United was an important step on the path back to respectability. The figures still don't look good - one place outside the bottom three by virtue of superior goal difference, no wins in eight games, only two goals scored in six games and none in the last three.

It should also be remembered that this fixture is of trifling importance compared to the next two league games - at home to Sunderland and away to West Bromwich Albion. These fixtures, rather than trips to Old Trafford, will determine whether our flirting with the relegation zone proves a brief dalliance or a drawn out affair.

That there were changes to the side who struggled so grimly against Everton was unsurprising, even if Gareth Southgate's hand was forced in some areas. The cynics were given further ammunition by another groin injury for the apparently careless Mido, allowing Afonso Alves a starting opportunity. Only Chris Riggott and Emmanuel Pogatetz remained from the defence that creaked on Boxing Day, and even then the skipper reverted from the centre to left back. Matthew Bates and David Wheater replaced Tony McMahon and Andrew Taylor.

Despite the 4-5-1 formation, Boro were relatively purposeful. Under heavy pressure, the defence coped well. There were inevitably some scares - bete noire Cristiano Ronaldo spurned two presentable chances while Ross Turnbull made an excellent save from a stinging Wayne Rooney half volley. On the break, Boro were neat and patient with the ball without creating any clear cut chances. The main drama of the first half came in injury time as Pogatetz foolishly grappled with Ronaldo in the box. The Portuguese was not reticent in letting the Boro skipper and referee Martin Atkinson know of his displeasure.

The second half began in an encouraging fashion, culminating in Tuncay heading a Matthew Bates cross inches wide of the post. There could have been even better openings had Julio Arca and Stewart Downing showed more composure when given time and space in front of the United defence. Cruelly, Boro's strongest patch of the game was ended by the decisive goal. David Wheater failed to clear a cross and Dimitar Berbatov poked the rebound past Turnbull. While Paul Scholes did seem to foul Chris Riggott, any complaints should be muted given the referee's failure to punish Pogatetz for his earlier misdemeanour.

The visitors tired considerably as United played keep-ball for lengthy spells. There was only the briefest scare for the home team, coming in the closing seconds of injury time. The ball was clipped into box and Tuncay executed a spectacular bicycle kick. However, had the post not denied him, the linesman's flag would have.

Having put up a creditable display when nothing but defeat was expected, Boro now have to deal with the weight of expectation. Once the banana skin of Barrow has been negotiated, there's a derby with Ricky Sbragia's Sunderland. With the Mackems just two points away, a worthy performance will not be enough.

Man of the Match Ross Turnbull

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