Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Final Countdown

Its quite commonplace to denigrate the FA Cup as a “distraction” these days even if it doesn't really convince. Complaining that the extra games would be an irritant after busting a gut in an attempt to get through rings hollow. Either way, with a rush of blood from Jones and a flick of Fellaini's bouf, our season is now distraction free and we are free to revel in the relentless, soul-sapping grind of a survival battle.

Its certainly been a curious few weeks since the cathartic defeat of Liverpool. Its always been a trait of the Boro that straightforward incompetence just won't do. Not when you can raise the hopes of your long-suffering fanbase, let them just begin to believe that everything will work out before turning round and kicking them square in the chaps.

The last fortnight is Middlesbrough Football Club in microcosm. Unexpected, heroic, raucous victory against all expectation. Months of negativity washed away with a performance that finally revealed the potential concealed over those bleak, winless months. People left the stadium smiling, feeling better than when they entered. It couldn't paper over all the cracks but at least we could enjoy the renewed optimism while it lasted.

Which was precisely four days. Where Spurs were supposedly floored by a gruelling 2 hours at Wembley, we had momentum for the first time in months. It didn't work out like that – Droopy managed to rustle tens of millions worth of fresh, cup-tied players from his unbalanced, bare bones squad while we never looked capable of emulating the Liverpool performance. Robert Huth displayed mobility befitting the 'Berlin Wall' nickname. The manager and players seemed shell shocked afterwards. We should have known better.

Last Sunday, there were signs that we might be able to save ourselves but bitter reminders of this team's failings. It takes impressive resilience to bounce back from the humiliation of White Hart Lane and take the ascendancy in such a tricky fixture. Everton were tentative, the fans nervous – the half time lead was merited. If those levels could be maintained, we should have no problems collecting enough points over the next ten games.

Unfortunately, the only consistent run we've achieved all year was that horrific, epic run between Villa Park in November and the Riverside in February. Maintaining concentration and standards have hitherto proved beyond this set of players and coaching staff. It has been a very long time since we achieved the kind of consistent run that we now need to stay up. Survival hopes realistically hinge on the next few weeks, with games against Stoke, Bolton, Hull and Fulham after today. If we're not moving clear of the bottom three by then, it will be a tall order to save ourselves over those tricky final five games.

The recurring weakness to aerial attacks has cost countless points already. With the exception of Roy Hodgson's team, the tactical approach of all of our opponents during this key run is tailor-made to expose this frailty. With every passing week, the pressure builds, the grim consequences of our current position cloying every minute of every game. Our habitual mid-table comfort zone has been abandoned. There are no more second chances.

Read this (including original typos) and more in Saturday's Fly Me To The Moon.

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