Thursday, 7 May 2009

Day of Destiny

Robert Huth was the hero last year with an 88th minute equaliser

Its still four days away but the nauseous feeling is already rising in the pit of my stomach. On Monday night, Boro make the short trip up the road to St James' Park to take on Newcastle in a game which both sides are banking on winning. The consequences of defeat are stark.

Thanks to Setanta's intervention, the rest of the Premier League's stragglers can crank the pressure up before the Tyne-Tees derby. Blackburn or Portsmouth have the chance to confirm another season of top flight football when they go head to head at Ewood Park. If Sunderland could win at Bolton, they would be tantalisingly close to doing the same.

The biggest game though surely involves fourth bottom Hull City. They host Stoke City, a more presentable opportunity for three points than their other games, at Bolton and at home to champions elect Manchester United on the final day. As last Saturday proved, even a watered down United line up is a colossal test for a struggling side. A win would leave Hull on 37 points and any loser on Monday almost out of reach. Anything less and a draw at St James's would leave both teams to fight another day.

Bearing in mind Boro's goal difference is seven worse than the Geordies, Gareth Southgate mustn't entertain thoughts of playing for a draw, as he has done against so many of the division's lesser lights this season. Finishing level on points with Hull or Newcastle will not be enough unless, like last season, there is a victory of freakish proportions in store at the end of the season.

Alen Boksic in 2001 - Boro's last win in Geordieland

Calling this game is not going to be straightforward - neither team has shown anything to inspire confidence in recent games. It is the resistible force against the movable object. Watching Boro's timid surrender against Arsenal and then Manchester United, there doesn't appear to be much evidence of fight left in the team.

Yet despite a more experienced and expensively assembled squad and the latest return of a departed messiah, Newcastle have arguably been even worse. A combination of sloppy finishing and the crossbar denied Liverpool a cricket score at Anfield last week, where Newcastle barely registered a shot. On top of that, Joey Barton dragged the club's name even further into the gutter with a sterling afternoon's work. Having been sent off for a pointless lunge at Xabi Alonso (a man who seems have replaced Pedro Mendes as the country's premier magnet for footballing violence), Barton topped it off by rowing with Alan Shearer after the game, pronouncing himself the club's best player and branding his manager "a prick" and "a shit manager".

Anything seems possible. A dismal 0-0 draw. A thumping home or away win if one side bottles it. A panic-ridden goalfest. Recent history would suggest honours being even. The last four meetings at St James' Park have ended in draws - the last time Boro lost at Newcastle, there was the consolation of the Carling Cup win eight days later. Boro haven't won at Newcastle since Alen Boksic's brace in 2001. With relegation as big a danger as its been since Terry Venables' salvage job, the time to end that record has surely come.

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