Thursday, 26 February 2009

Boro deal Hammer blow

You don't save those

Boro have booked a place in the last eight of the FA Cup for the fourth successive season after despatching an insipid West Ham team last night. A performance of unexpected verve and competence including two goals in the opening 20 minutes ensured a comfortable passage to the quarter-finals and a tough tie at Goodison Park.

There have been few finer strikes at the Riverside than the opening goal. After Tuncay was impeded, Stewart Downing struck with a free kick of unerring accuracy. Curling away from the diving Robert Green, the ball glanced the underside of the crossbar on its way in. Downing was lively throughout and came within inches of adding a second soon after following sloppy work from the West Ham midfield.

More unconvincing defending from the visitors led to the second. Tomkins' clearance lacked purchase, allowing Tuncay to volley past an unsettled Green. Boro's supremacy was rarely threatened in the remaining 70 minutes as the changes made by Gareth Southgate had a favourable impact. Matthew Bates screened the back four athletically and grew in confidence, carrying the ball deep into Hammers' territory as the game progressed. Although he didn't last the whole game, Jeremie Aliadiere's movement and workrate again provided a riposte to those who highlight his unquestionably meagre goal tally. Even the frequently maligned Julio Arca made some telling defensive contributions. Robert Huth was simply unbeatable.

Even with 2,500 from London to swell the numbers, the game was modestly attended. Yet despite the crowd numbering 15,602, the Riverside produced the best atmosphere for some time, moving captain Emanuel Pogatetz to praise the fans. 'Lettergate' appears to have had unintended consequences, galvanising the crowd against the unlikely scapegoat of Sue Watson.

The much improved performance and stunning early goal were obviously important but this was a more patient and supportive crowd than normal. With Sue's boys adopting a sensibly low-profile approach, the club's most vocal fans were freed from the restraints of moaning fans and jobsworth stewards. There was a rare confluence of passion in the stands and confidence on the pitch. A repeat is needed for the remaining six games at the Riverside, starting on Saturday with a Liverpool side fresh from defeating Real Madrid.

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