Tuesday, 12 May 2009

On the brink

That, surely, is now that. It will take the most unlikely turnaround to avoid a return to the second tier of English football for the first time since 1998. Gareth Southgate gambled on last night's Tyne-Tees derby to save Boro's season and came out empty handed.

It all started so well. Tuncay wriggled into space and while Steve Harper managed to block his shot, he could only deflect it into the shins of Habib Beye. The ball, almost apologetically, rolled into the empty net. Several miles away in the clouds, there was bedlam. The visiting fans had come more in hope than expectation, particularly having learned of rare starts for Mohammed Shawky and Marvin "The Project" Emnes.

Once again, it didn't last. Despite the warning of Mark Viduka hitting the post, Newcastle were allowed to equalise with a goal of sickening simplicity. Danny Guthrie took the corner, Steven Taylor ran unchecked and Boro's lead disappeared after all of six minutes.

It was a contest of stomach-churning tension. It was impossible to relax for a moment - both sides displayed the nervousness and wretched incompetence that had left the clubs pegged on a pathetic 31 points with three games to go. As half time approached, despite the departure of Afonso Alves with a broken foot, Boro were looking the more composed on the ball. Marvin Emnes was the biggest surprise - a bright if somewhat erratic presence up front. After Harper blocked his first shot, for a millisecond it seemed Emnes would restore the lead. Instead, he fed his shot inches wide.

The second half continued in a similar vain. Neither side seemed to have the composure or belief to assert superiority. Boro again looked more composed on the ball but lacked purpose going forward. The crucial slip came soon after Alan Shearer withdrew the insipid Michael Owen. His replacement Obafemi Martins squirmed clear of Matthew Bates and shot past Brad Jones. It was a crucial blow.

Adam Johnson joined Jeremie Aliadiere from the bench as Boro pushed for an equaliser. The tide had turned though and Boro struggled to take advantage of Newcastle's tentative defending. With gaps being left at the back, there was always a risk of a third concession. With six minutes to go, Peter Lovenkrands turned in a cross from the right and the contest was effectively over.

In the biggest game of the season, all the familiar failings cost Boro. There was a failure to capitalise when we were on top, with Marvin Emnes missing a wonderful chance to make it 2-1. Then, when Newcastle managed to apply some pressure, Boro could not cope. Once again, defending on set pieces was simply not good enough.

Gareth Southgate highlighted the poor tackle on Alves by Nicky Butt, questions of offside over the second goal and the unfortunate absence of Didier Digard and David Wheater. Yet there can be no excuse. We're heading for the Championship because its where we deserve to be. This team lacks the belief needed to stay in this division. Only those who believe in miracles can have any confidence of Boro starting next season in the Premier League now.

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