GROUNDHOG Day. Bubbling Boro play some sparkling football in a one sided spell of total domination, carve out half-a-dozen clear cut chances, fail to take a single one and then slowly, inevitably, fatally hand over the the initiative then the game in a frustrating cycle of self-inflicted defeats. How many times have we seen that one played out now?
Boro battered Bolton for 20 minutes and could have been at least three up before the streaker made his appearance on the 25 minute mark. Had they scored then it would have drawn Bolton out, Boro would have had space to exploit and it could have been a massacre. Having drawn a blank during that blitz it became almost inevitable that Bolton would grow in confidence and start to fancy their chances. In the second half Boro barely mustered a shot that bothered the keeper while Bolton hit the bar, hit the post and had one cleared off the line before Gavin McCann stabbed home after a chaotic struggle amid groans of “typical bloody Boro!”
From the opening day against Blackburn onwards it has been the recurring story of the season. West Ham, Everton, Liverpool, Reading at home have all followed that script. Some have almost gone the same way: against Wigan and Derby Boro managed to make one of the chances count but then contrived to retreat into cautious, terrified defence anyway and almost let beaten opponents back in. Against Sunderland and Liverpool they did concede a point after failing to kill the teams off and inching into a nervous slo-mo late retreat.
Boro need to develop the cold killer touch of an Uzi toting hitman out to ice a crack turf war rival in a drive by. A more ruthless side, even one that did not play such a fluid beauty pageant passing game, could have turned those chances into six or nine or 12 more points this season. That is where we are lacking. Boro have spent ÃÂ£21m on strikers this season and have managed less than a goal a game. That is where the problem lies.
Beating Bolton would have left Bolton deep in trouble and all but secured Boro’s survival. Now the gap between the teams is down to just five points and we are looking over our shoulders again going into the last three games. Losing at home to a poor, poor side, one with a death wish and who have looked doomed and even more flaccid in front of goal than Boro since selling Anelka, is a massive own goal. The good will generated by the Manchester United and Spurs games has had a cold harsh bucket of reality thrown on it. And that at a time when the season ticket renewal forms are flopping onto doormats and memories of Cardiff were just fading.
Gutted. But not completely surprised. Some observations:
Mad Dogs of War: It was a blood splattered clash (as they tend to be against Bolton)… especially for Gary Cahill. The black and blue Wanderers man needed treatment after Emanuel Pogatetz, looking for a Kevin Davies substitute, put the nut on the back of his head as they went up for an aerial duel and then he had to go off for stitches in his napper after a another nasty collision with team-mate Cohen. Raziak went off dazed and with a bleeding head after another friendly fire incident in the Bolton box and a bruising first half featured three long hold-ups, a physio sprint race and season record seven minutes added time.
Penalty Clause? You don’t want to bang on about it for fear of being branded whinging, paranoid one-eyed bad losers but what will it take for Boro to get a penalty? After the Luke Young “handball” at Villa set the standard for intent fairly low, Boro have had a string of far stronger claims waved away. And alright, the bobble up onto Matt Taylor’s hand maybe not. And the shot into the box that clipped a white sleeve in the first half, well, OK, benefit of the doubt. But when Stewy Downing’s ball into the box deflected onto McCann’s arm in the box he saw it coming and had plenty of time to get out of the way. It was stonewall. And that was at 0-0.
Winging It: Jeremie Aliadiere had a storming first half as a makeshift right winger that may offer a way out of the selection headache the gaffer faces in accommodating his creative forces of Alves, Tuncay, Downing and the jet-heeled Frenchman. Drafted in to replace Gary O’Neil in a wide role he was highly effective. His pace terrified Bolton, he cut in to link up superbly with Alves or offer an extra body in the box and had the legs to get back and close down when the opposition got down the flank, several times racing back 20, 30, 40 yards to put in a tackle – once in his own box! His speed, control and vision can still hurt teams out there and that offers a possible long term solution to the right wing problem (possibly freeing up finance for investment elsewhere) and also some interesting tactical options.
Keeper Up With The Joneses: Ross Turnbull was a positive. He couldn’t do much about the goal having blocked the initial Cahill header and maybe he was caught out of position for the chip to the far post that Young had to head off the line, but generally he watched his angles well, made some good saves from shots from the edge of the box (the kind that have routinely flown in unimpeded this term), was quickly off his line and commanded his often crowded box with a confidence that belied his lack of experience at this level.
Brad Jones terrifies me when he is in goal and strikes me as good for at least one major dropped blob per game and gives the impression that the defence are jittery too, but Turnbull seems solid. He did well when he played in the 1-1 draw at Reading and 2-1 win over Arsenal and seems brave and confident. Schwarzer missed the game with a back injury – a freak book signing incident was the cruel press room speculation – and as the ageing Aussie’s status at the club is yet to be resolved the gaffer should take the opportunity to give Turnbull a run in the last few games, critically assess whether he has what it takes. It could save a few bob and sharpen the focus on both sides of the table when Skippy next talks turkey on a new deal.
Briefs Interlude: On a day of disappointments the “streaker” caught the mood of the moment and failed to deliver. Firstly he kept his shreddies on. Not that anyone particularly wanted to see the works but if you are going to do it at least give it your best shot. Secondly, the whole enterprise seemed totally aimless and having hopped out of the East Stand and crossed the pitch he seemed lost. There was no jovial attempt to hug a player, no cheeky British Bulldog with stewarsd and police. As the team were to do later, he ran out of ideas and steam and just fizzled out and waiting to be ushered down the tunnel. After the game while I waited for quotes from players (a new season’s record of 56 minutes after the whistle by the way) I spoke briefly to the arresting officer who said the streaker explained his actions sheepishly by saying: “It was just one of those things you have to do before you die.”