WATFORD were fourth bottom and had lost three out of four at home but Boro – who needed to win to keep the season alive – couldn’t beat them. Boro had two shots on target and until Leroy Lita came on they had nothing up front.
Boro have not won away in six – since Adam Johnson left – and have not kept a clean sheet on the road since Gordon Strachan took over. They lack a creative force, pace or cutting edge going forward and for all the added steel of McManus and the departure of erratic Sean St Ledger they still can not withstand sustained pressure. The end result is far too many disappointing draws against the dead men.
And that is why Boro are not going to feature in the play-offs.
The “strugglers” were faster, stronger, more direct and in Tom Cleverley had the best player on the pitch. When they had their spells of possession they always looked dangerous and piled on the pressure with corners and free-kicks and for long spells it was all hands to the pumps in the Boro box.
Boro in contrast looked laboured, flat and one dimensional when they had the ball and their own attacks petered out quickly. They lacked width and pace and with two big lads up front in the first helf there was little variety as big balls were humped forward but would not stick.
Boro had isolated spells of pressure but rarely troubled the keeper until Lita exploded into the game with good chances either side of his goal. His pace offered an outlet on the floor and he linked up well with a revitalised Gary O’Neil and suddenly Boro looked dangerous but then after a 10 minute period of belief and hunger they slipped back into a coma and left Watford to dominate.
Boro were woeful in the first half. They didn’t have an effort on target or a single corner and the defence looked shaky with Jones having a wobble or two and suddenly looking nervous again while both full-backs struggled with Watford’s pace.
After the break Boro improved: they started brightly, there was a bit more tempo and bite in the tackle and Robson, O’Neil and Arca started to get forward more.., but it was still Watford who looked hungrier and more coherent as a unit.
At least Boro clawed the goal back and gave a veneer of respectability to what was otherwise a very poor display by a side who appear to have given up the play-off ghost.
As they warmed up before the game the Cardiff match was playing out to a damning conclusion on the big screen and it is hard to believe the reality of the result did not have an impact. The win for the Dragon Botherers lifted them nine points clear with a game in hand. What had been a steep slope became a sheer cliff face and this is a team who do not have a head for heights or the equipment for such an ascent.
People – the players, the gaffer – will talk about mathematical possibilities, albeit with little conviction but Boro now need a miracle. Cardiff are out of sight now. Leicester and Swansea are just about catchable but Boro would need to start winning away games quickly – including at West Brom and Leicester – to have any hope at all and then still hope that all their rivals blow up too. There is an air of inevitability about it all now.
But let’s look at the positives… Boro didn’t lose; McManus was excellent again (although the transformed situation at Celtic may mean it is harder to pencil him in for next season); Lita looks interested again and could still catch Johnson for the top scorer gong; the 1,100 fans were once again fantastic; there were no more injuries.
Still, there’s always next year…