Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Boro come unstuck against Toffees

Boro's fourth successive FA Cup quarter final ended in defeat on Sunday, another lead thrown away with Gareth Southgate's men unable to resist Everton's second half fightback. Having merited a half time lead against the nervy Toffeemen, familiar failings ended dreams of a first trip to the new Wembley with both Everton goals coming from straightforward balls into the box.

Any optimism created by the unexpected triumph against Liverpool was comprehensively squashed by Wednesday's dismal capitulation at Spurs. The defensive solidity of recent weeks evaporated at White Hart Lane and the paralysing failure to resist set pieces had made an unwelcome return. Despite the heavy defeat, Gareth Southgate decided to entrust the same starting eleven with the task of reaching the last four of the FA Cup. The best hope seemed to be that the weight of expectation overcame David Moyes' team as it did so painfully to Boro twelve months ago.

If that seemed unlikely pre-match, hopes began to rise throughout the first half. The home crowd were quickly silenced as the visitors made a confident start, keeping the ball well high up the field. There could, and maybe should, have been an early lead when Jeremie Aliadiere shanked a presentable opportunity over the bar.

With their striking options limited and their only inventive midfielder out for the season, Everton looked anything but a top six side. The frustration in the home stands was palpable. If Goodison Park, with its wooden stands and restricted views, is a relic from football's past, it befits the views of a fanbase that gorged on success in the 1980s but hadn't enjoyed an FA Cup semi-final since 1995. Belief amongst those in red, on the pitch and in the stands, crept higher.

Just before half time, the home defence could only partially clear a free kick idiotically conceded by Leon Osman. Matthew Bates swung the ball back in and Tim Howard's efforts to repel David Wheater's header were somewhat less than convincing. In the Bullens Road Stand, it was bedlam. The whistle went - for fifteen minutes we were going to Wembley.

When the teams re-emerged after the break, roles were reversed. Everton re-jigged midfield, dropping Tim Cahill back and introducing Louis Saha to spearhead the attack. Once Aliadiere's efforts to add a second had been thwarted, Boro never looked capable of protecting the lead. Just five minutes in, the defence was breached. For once, Marouane Fellaini escaped the attentions of Robert Huth and with Brad Jones in the midst of an ill-advised dash from his line, the ball plopped depressingly over the line.

Having made his first error since being recalled, Jones looked increasingly nervous and the defence in front of him seemed little better. A further five minutes passed, Boro didn't clear a right wing cross, Osman retrieved the ball and Saha evaded Jones and Wheater to nod his centre home. Capitulation seemed a real danger as Leighton Baines spanked a free kick against the crossbar.

Despite Jones' jitters, there was still time for a late rally. Marvin Emnes and Adam Johnson ran at a tiring defence and Stewart Downing got greater joy on the right wing up against Baines. The nerves consumed the home team again, Tuncay almost equalising from a horribly miscued clearance and then Tim Howard spilling a free-kick from Gary O'Neil, the rebound cleared from the tips of Emnes' toes. A manful effort but in vain - a blast of the whistle sparing Everton from one final corner, leaving Boro with nothing to play for but survival.

As the manager admitted, the frailties which cost cup progress on Sunday are the very reason why the league season has turned into a grim battle for survival. That task looks increasingly difficult - another four wins seems a minimum requirement and the time left to get them is running out. As crushing a disappointment as Sunday was, if its the worst thing to happen to Boro this season, we should all be relieved.

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