Sunday, 15 March 2009
Stay of execution
Somehow, some way, yesterday's relegation battle with Portsmouth didn't end in defeat. There's scant encouragement to be taken from another insipid performance that did absolutely nothing to suggest Gareth Southgate's team have enough about them to avert the drop.
Boro's first half display was amongst the worst seen in a grim season at the Riverside. Boro were toothless up front, anonymous in midfield and nervy at the back. Niko Krancjar wandered unencumbered around the middle of the pitch, free to pick out his fellow forwards time after time. Even when David Nugent hit the post, Boro did not heed the warning.
Emmanuel Pogatetz screwed a clearance horribly out for a corner, the nadir of an execrable first half from the skipper, who was mercifully withdrawn at the break. The home defence was half asleep as Portsmouth teed up Peter Crouch to volley past an unsighted Brad Jones.
After the break, there was some improvement but this was almost inevitable after the opening 45 minutes. David James was at least forced into action, saving well from a Tuncay header and a Taylor volley. Pompey's threat on the break was eroded by fatigue and tactical conservatism. Matty Bates' embarrassing red card worked to Boro's advantage, galvanising a tetchy and irritable crowd.
With Bates dismissed and the ineffective Arca withdrawn, Tuncay dropped back to midfield and lifted the team into one last charge. Haring all over the pitch like a hyperactive schoolboy, the pressure began to grow. The home fans drew an unflattering comparison between the Turk's efforts and those of his team-mates, much to Southgate's chagrin.
Finally, in the fourth minute of added time, Boro earned a reprieve. Adam Johnson's corner was turned back across the face of goal by Robert Huth. David James did magnificently to parry Tony McMahon's header but the rebound was unmissable, even for Marlon King.
Having evaded a potentially catastrophic defeat, it could and should have gone even better. With seconds left, substitute Afonso Alves ran onto Johnson's superb through ball. The Brazilian's tentative finish was typical of his frustrating spell on Teesside.
Despite the point saved, it was still a deeply concerning performance. The lack of poise and ability shown in the first 45 minutes was frightening. Even if the effort in the second half was unstinting, the quality was still not much better. Few teams would let superiority slip as meekly as Portsmouth did in the closing stages.
Off the pitch, a crowd of just 24,000 were reduced to grumbling for much of the game. If the manager was right to point out that some of the criticism was self-defeating, he really is in no position to test the patience of fans who are reaching breaking point. If his team could defend set pieces with the half the tenacity the manager defends his under-performing 'group', there wouldn't be an issue. Whatever the wisdom of terrace chants, they are borne out of an understandable anxiety about the future. Faith in Southgate's ability to safeguard our top flight status erodes with every passing week.
Posted by MR at 17:15