CRACK! THWACK! TWANG! It was an onomatopoeic derby horror show as Boro’s season limped heavily into a casualty cul-de-sac. Not only did Boro have to deal with the frustration of leaking a sickening late, late leveller to a poor Sunderland side and the potentially costly cheap surrender of two points at home, but now they must also face up to a major injury headache just as the fixture list begins an ominously sharp incline.
Crack! Tuncay suffered what early reports suggested was a fractured tibia which depending on the severity could rule him out for up to two months, just when he was set for a run in the team. Thwack! Fresh from his fashionable act of respectful non-celebration after scoring against his former faithful, influential Julio Arca took a blow to his knee and is believed to have sustained medial ligament damage that again could leave him sidelined for months. Twang! Passionate powerhouse Mido, a cult hero in the making, went off with what is said to be a hamstring injury that will rule him out for about a month.
Given that Jeremie Aliadiere is also on the treatment table for up to six weeks with a hamstring injury it leaves Boro going into what will be a very tough run of fixtures with none of their first choice frontline available. There is Dong Gook Lee, yet to score a Premiership goal, but in truth for all his good movement off the ball and nice touches not even his Mam would have put him in her Fantasy League team, and there is young and untried reserves net-buster Tom Craddock.
So Boro, who gambled and opted not to bring in another recognised Premiership goal-getter before the deadline, are striker light going into Wednesday’s Carling Cup clash at Spurs then a run of games that will see them travel to Everton and Manchester City then face Chelsea at home before a trip to Old Trafford.
There is a growing case for throwing agricultural handful David Wheater (who has had as many efforts on goal as anyone this season) up front in the hope that he can follow the path of John Hickton and be transformed into a makeshift bustling striker. He will certainly have a physical presence in the box that the other two don’t.
Worse still, there are alarming signs that Boro’s defence are now wobbling too. In three of the four home games this term Boro have leaked two goals, against a hard working but low scoring Blackburn, a Newcastle side that failed to trouble Derby and now Sunderland.
It is easy to argue that the goals were unfortunate as the first took a bit of deflection on the way through and the second was a wonderstrike but in fact they were both self inflicted. The opener came because a slow starting Boro sloppily conceded possession and then failed to track Leadbitter’s run – in itself an echo of the Lee Bowyer goal within seconds of the restart at West Ham – and the second because Boro sat back in the closing stages and let Sunderland throw hopefuls balls into the box and while most were headed or hoofed clear there was always a risk that they would get a lucky bounce somewhere along the line.
Admittedly injuries are again a factor. The season started with all the first choice centre-backs recovering from surgery and new boy Luke Young also crocked. Wheater has been a revelation for his industry and muscle but both the normally imperious Jonathan Woodgate and Young have yet to hit peak match fitness and both have had shaky games of late and so the fledgling defensive unit has yet to look as resolute as it did at its best last term.
Ironically last season’s glaring problem, a one dimensional and dysfunctional midfield, appears to have been solved. The rehabilitation of Rochemback as a hard working ball player who tackles back and who can spark attacks with excellent distribution has been a massive bonus (although how the absence of his Latin engineroom oppo Arca will affect him is yet to be sen) while the addition of dynamic Gary O’Neil on the right has brought pace and balance.
Also on the credit column was the spirited and open style of a display in which Boro set out to entertain. They carved out a string of good chances and DG Lee and bantamweight battler Lee Cattermole both went close plus there were two good shouts for a penalty – but being praised for playing well and creating a flurry of excellent chances and then coming away with little to show for it is a dangerous habit to get into in.
Those of a nervous disposition will already have the calculators out. What had seemed a gentle start on paper has proved problematic and eight points from seven games probably falls short of what even the pessimists had reckoned on by this stage.
Now Boro must dig deep. Things are about to get tough.