Sunday, 14 December 2008

Patched up Boro defy Gunners

Ali counts how many goals he's scored this season

Are Boro Arsenal-lite? The Guardian's excitable north east correspondent Louise Taylor is not the first to draw parallels between Gareth Southgate's Boro and Wenger's Arsenal. There certainly some similarities - a priority for lean, young squads and disinclination for big money signings. Its typical of Boro that we chose to emulate a club at almost the precise point their capacity to win trophies disappeared.

Arsene Wenger has been uncharacteristically gracious in his assessment of Southgate - perhaps he is trying to divert attention from the novice's unbeaten record against his team, which now runs to five games. Pools aficionados must also be in the Southgate fan club - this is the fourth of that run to end in a 1-1 draw.

Despite that impressive track record, expectation amongst a fairly sparse home crowd was not high. The post-Villa optimism seems distant already - the subsequent four games yielding just two points. The combination of another foul winter's day and the loathed lunchtime kick-off dampened spirits to something less than festive.

There was also concerns over the fitness of a makeshift backline. With Wheater suspended and both regular full-backs injured, Chris Riggott and Robert Huth stepped up from the treatment table, Emmanuel Pogatetz played through the pain barrier again while Tony McMahon made his first Boro start for some time. Real Madrid target Adam Johnson made a rare start while the manager's patience finally ran out with the struggling Afonso Alves.

Operating in an unusual 4-5-1 formation, Boro made a surprisingly purposeful start as Didier Digard flashed over a succession of dangerous corners. The visitors began to make an impression, one particularly ominous move ending in Robin van Persie narrowly missing. When their opener did arrive it came in a less stylish manner, Emmanuel Adebayor left to head home Fabregas' corner with disconcerting ease. There may be convincing arguments for using zonal marking systems but Boro seem to be undermining the concept with a particularly sloppy version on a weekly basis.

This Arsenal team may retain the passing verve of their predecessors but they lack the resolve of the Petit/Vieira side of the late 90s or the 'invincibles' of 2004. Boro were back level within 12 minutes and if there was fortune in the opportunity there was undeniable quality in the execution. Clichy's ricocheted clearance only found Tuncay, whose whipped cross was met with a superb stooping header from Jeremie Aliadiere.

Having threatened to run away with it at one point, Arsenal could perhaps consider themselves fortunate to remain level at half time. Didier Digard was an increasingly efficient and competitive presence in midfield. The revised defence grew in composure. Only an appalling decision by referee Peter Walton prevented Boro having a gilt-edged chance to lead after Gael Clichy clearly tripped Adam Johnson in the area.

In the opening periods of the second half, Boro continued to look strong. Several promising counter attacks fell just short of opening the Arsenal defence. When Julio Arca did breach the backline with a beautifully weighted pass, Boro were thwarted by Manuel Almunia. Stewart Downing, leaving Bacary Sagna in his wake, thumped a powerful effort that was sneaking inside the near post before the Spaniard's intervention.

Over the closing half hour, Arsenal's dominance of possession grew. The prodigious effort from the likes of Aliadiere and Digard left the side looking increasingly jaded. Yet the defence showed remarkable concentration - despite seemingly incessant pressure, Ross Turnbull was rarely forced into anything beyond the straightforward.

The gap between Boro and the bottom three remains uncomfortably slim but this was still a worthy point against Wenger's dangerous but fragile outfit. The performances of the resurgent Chris Riggott, the returning Tony McMahon and the increasingly assured Didier Digard offered real encouragement. Its unlikely either of these sides have the quality to achieve their stated goals this season. Both teams suffer from a lack of depth, questionable resolve and infuriating inconsistency. The wait for potential to become achievement continues.

Man of the Match Didier Digard

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