ONLY the obligatory late leaked goal from a set-piece spoiled the day as Boro drew 1-1 at West Ham. The subconscious retreat in the face of a late Hammers assault was a frustrating finale after Boro had continued to gradually inch back to being a decent side.
Boro had set out with positive intent and took the game to West Ham, pressing them deep in their own half and forcing a string of errors at the back that led to half-chances and kept the home side looking nervous. It was only after the Hammers made major changes and put on three strikers that they escaped that grip.
The Boro midfield had a more balanced look about it with square-pegs in square holes – Adam Johnson restored to the left, a more interested and effective looking Gary O’Neil on the right and Didier Digard industrious and creative in the middle. Only unconvincing Julio Arca looked off the pace and when the Hammers stepped up the tempo in the second half he really struggled.
There was a more rational and balanced look about the back line too with a natural full-back on the right in Justin Hoyte who added an attacking dimension when needed while the central pairing was Boro’s best. A fit and fired up Robert Huth is a massive boost and his presence brings the best out of David Wheater too. And much maligned Brad Jones deserves praise too. Whatever the reservations many have about his fragility, he has played well in recent weeks and made some cracking saves.
Up front Alves continues to try. He makes runs, carves out chances and is not scraed to shoot. He remains our best hope for goals and if he could just stay on his feet when faced with a physical encounter could even be a potent force.
Stewart Downing had his best game for ages and capped it with a goal to end a long and worrying drought. He ran at West Ham, played some killer balls through and found space for a string of decent efforts. Playing in the free role in the middle gives him the opportunity to use his creative instinct and prevents the opposition marking him out of the game so easily. Whether he can do it against bigger, better organised and higher quality opposition is yet to be seen but it offers an option for a team that has been desperate for invention in the absence of the other Tuncay that used to play for us.
The sloppy marking at the set piece for the equaliser was disappointing, especially as in many ways it was self-inflicted. The free-kick was cheaply and needlessly conceded and came at a time when Boro were deep in their mandatory slo-mo retreat to their own 18 yard line that invites pressure.
But to be fair, the West Ham marking for Boro’s goal was atrocious too with two defenders spurning chances to clear and Stewie allowed to run 30 yards unchallenged to the far post.
Overall, it was a good result although it could have been better. A good display and a draw away at a ground where we have won once in the Premier League era, against one of the league’s in-form sides is not bad. And we are in the quarter-final draw again: four years running makes it a golden age for Boro in the FA Cup. Plus, importantly, there were some good individual performances from some of the players who will be crucial in the weeks to come if we are to dig ourselves out of the hole.
A few observations:
*It was nice to see Steve Agnew jumping, pointing and screaming on the touchline. Some animation is nice. And the spat over the non-returned ball was funny too.
*Juninho was at the game as a guest of the chairman. He is in England on business and to possibly make a cameo appearance at Garforth Town, the samba powered pyramid experiment driven by Teesside futsal guri Simon Clifford. But don’t let that routine explanation of his presence stop the rumours and the religious zeal sure to follow.
*How narrow was the Upton Park pitch? It seems to have been shaved by six feet on either flank since our last visit.
*London has a third world infrastructure. It is a major European capital with a transport system like Khartoum. And they slate us.