Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Green shoots of recovery (plus Brad Jones: an apology)

It was a hell of a long time coming but it was almost worth the wait. Liverpool's title challenge may be suffered a terminal blow but Boro's fight for survival may be a fight after all. For the second time in four days, a rejuvenated Riverside revelled in post-letter liberation, saluting a second 2-0 triumph. At long last, there is hope.

Of course, it would be foolish to get carried away after one game. The league table still makes sobering reading, with only Stoke and West Brom sitting below Gareth Southgate's side. Only the most blinkered could deny the assistance given by the profligacy of Nabil El Zhar and Dirk Kuyt. And performing against Liverpool is no guarantee that Southgate will be able to resolve the issue of insipid displays against more limited opposition.

Nevertheless, there were several encouraging signs. Robert Huth managed to complete three games in eight days and was a colossal presence in all of them. Huth seems to be having a becalming influence on his colleagues too with David Wheater beginning to recover from an indifferent run. Matthew Bates has helped to buttress a once leaky defence. The troublesome right flank has been bolstered by the return to fitness of Justin Hoyte and Gary O'Neil. Stewart Downing looks every inch an international quality footballer. The reinstatement of the Tuncay-Aliadiere strikeforce has added graft, flair, pace and two goals from the Turk.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the form of oft maligned keeper Brad Jones. Some ill-qualified observers may have questioned his abilities but he's yet to turn in a below par performance this season. Assured in the air, smart reactions in the box and assertive in distribution, he's justifying Gareth Southgate's faith and proving the doubters, myself included, very wrong. Long may it continue.

Most encouraging of all was the collective resilience shown. The team has wilted in the closing stages of too many games this season but on Saturday it was Liverpool's spirit was broken. Carragher and Gerrard made sullen departures, passes began to drift out of play with increasing frequency while Boro grew in confidence. Rafa Benitez must at least be grateful for the finishing of Marlon King, who really should have heightened Liverpool's embarrassment during a clumsy cameo appearance.

Attention now turns to Tottenham tomorrow night. With the likes of Cudicini, Chimbonda, Palacios and Keane cup-tied on Sunday, the impact of Sunday's gruelling Carling Cup final is unlikely to have a huge effect on the game, however much Harry Redknapp protests. With the bad blood over Spurs' protracted efforts to recruit Stewart Downing still fresh (never mind the departure of Jonathan Woodgate last January), victory tomorrow would mean more than just another three points.

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