INJURIES or not, striker light Boro must go for broke at White Hart lane tomorrow night. There must be no weak team, weak mind fudge. It is a game Boro must win.
Gareth Southgate may have a headache up front but dead man walking Martin Jol has far bigger problems as the vultures gather in the boardroom and his disjointed and demoralised side – tipped as Champions League challengers after breaking the bank – languish in the bottom three.
Jol is caught in a Groundhog Day nightmare of recurring votes of confidence and rumours of dressing room rifts hampering his team and heads are down after a shaky start to what was scripted to be a glorious season. There may never be a better time to play sorry Schpursh.
Boro must take advantage of the hapless Hotspurs and go for the jugular in what is arguably the biggest game of the season so far. The League Cup is the most realistic route to the Holy Grail of European football for Boro and the opportunity must not be spurned.
Spurs, in the UEFA Cup themselves, have bigger fish to fry and will possibly field a weakened side through choice. Boro will be forced to put out a patched up one but they can more than make up for the absences by playing with the pace and passion that has been hinted at in flashes so far this term, by showing a snarling no quarter given Lee Cattermole competitive streak and by showing from the off that they want it more.
Southgate will have learned from his time as a player under Steve McClaren and as a rookie boss himself last term against Notts County that if you play a weakened side and take a laissez faire attitude to this competition it will bite you in the bum – but if you graft and get the rub of the green it can soon stack up as a success and open the door to silverware.
He should learn the lesson from Sunderland too: that a side that battles and scraps and stays motivated right to the death can sneak something.
So Boro should approach the game as one that can and must be won. If we lose and then fail to ignite in the coming run of tough Premiership fixtures the season is all but over as a competitive entity before October. Boro urgently need an inspirational display and result to galvanise a season in danger of drifting.
That is not to minimise the problems facing the boss who must come up with an effective system that can hurt Spurs despite having his three first choice strikers crocked – Mido and Tuncay have joined Jeremie Aliadiere on the sidelines – and also without two of his ideal midfield as Gary O’Neil is cup-tied and Julio Arca is facing a long spell out with a knee injury.
And while Southgate got a lucky break with the news that his frontmen are not as badly injured as first thought, the derby day casualties will be sorely missed tomorrow, not least the former Spurs man.
Mido is the focal point of the fluid attacking style that is starting to evolve. His physical presence, his strength on the ball, his industry, his deft touches that link up with midfielders as the break forward are all essential ingredients in the new fast and flowing approach that is being fostered and without him it is not a viable option as there is no-one else in the squad that can play that role as effectively.
Plan B – and there must be one as the club must have factored in that Mido will be away in January for the African Nations Cup and also consider the probability of injuries or bans – has also been scuppered because it will have featured Aliadiere and Tuncay in tandem.
So now Southgate must find an ad hoc system from a pool of players that lacks any real cutting edge as with the best will in the world neither Lee Dong Gook nor Tom Craddock are capable of playing the Mido role.
Lee makes some good runs and has a nice touch but has struggled to cope with the physicality of the Premiership and is routinely monstered by defenders. He has made 14 starts and come off the bench 11 times for Boro in the league and is yet to score. His strength lies in breaking quickly onto balls along the ground and passing first time putting him more in the Aliadiere mould than the Mido one.
And what of Craddock? The prolific reserves striker, 20, like Lee has the knack of making incisive runs but as a one time defender is maybe more used to the robust stuff and has the confidence to go for goal but has had next to no Premiership pitch time. He clocked up eight minutes after coming on as a sub at Fulham on the final day of the 2005-06 season when Boro finished with 11 academy graduates.
Of course, if they are good enough they are old enough – and if they are not good enough you must ask what they are doing at the club – but there is a world of difference between banging them in for the stiffs and doing it on the big stage (just ask Ian Arnold, Nicky Peverell or Danny Graham) and whether the boss will take a risk is to be seen. While kids can sometimes be fearless and play out of their skins there is also the danger that a roasting and a nightmare display may destroy their confidence completely. Think Keith O’Halloran and Derby.
To play the two together up front is a massive leap in the dark too as neither would ideally even start a game but at least it has the advantage of sticking with the shape used this season, spreading the burden of industry up front and also the problems for the Spurs defence and at least they have played together in the reserves.
Southgate may decide that is too much of a gamble and instead make tactical changes. The obvious answer would be to play Boateng on the right, draft Shawky and Cattermole into midfield and play 4-5-1 although again, ideally that requires a hard-working, physical frontman. It may be a case of just picking one and getting them fired up to go out and seize the moment. Cometh the hour cometh the man.
A wild card of throwing David Wheater forward as the targetman has been mooted, indeed Southgate admited he considered if for the second half against Sunderland, but although the big defender has the presence and aerial prowess to cause problems he doesn’t have the touch to hold it up and bring others in. Besides it would just leave the defence short too.
A more likely scenario is a 4-4-1-1 with Fabio Rochemback in the hole behind the lone striker, presumably Lee, and getting forward to support him when Boro attack and slotting back into the midfield when under pressure.
But playing one up front or trying to sit back and defend gives the initiative to Spurs and they have the strikers to win the game if they are given the chances so it could be a case of attack being the best form of defence. One option would be to try a 4-3-3 with Stewart Downing and Cattermole advanced up the channels giving an outlet for balls out of defence that take some of the burden off the central striker. That could allow Lee to play to his strengths without being bullied out of the game as he tries to hold it up.
Whatever system the boss chooses the real key will be attitude, workrate and the will to win. The squad should be big enough, experienced enough and hungry enough to cope. They certainly cost enough. Boro must be fired up, scrap for every ball with an almost psychotic zeal and they must crack Spurs’ fragile facade. It is a tough task but not an impossible one and victory could light the blue touchpaper on a season that has spluttered so far.