LAST time Boro took on Villarreal, Steve McClaren’s star-studded side were out-played in a UEFA Cup group game. Back then, in November 2004, a team still basking in the glow of Carling Cup glory were comfortably beaten 2-0 away after paying the price for starting without some star names for what was a dead rubber. Mark Viduka and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink were on the bench with Joseph Job up front on his own leaving the 4,000 fans who had travelled to Valencia in the first big away glamour trip feeling a little let down.
Boss Steve McClaren had bigger fish to fry. He was resting his big names for bread and butter games and as Boro still qualified for the knock-out phase and went on to finish in a highest ever Premier League position of seventh, he maybe had a point. His tinkering that term helped Boro to a second continental campaign that was to take them to the high-water mark of the final at Eindhoven. Ahhhhhh, wistful nostalgia.
But those misty memories must have felt like another club, in another lifetime to the 6,000 plus crowd who watched another encounter between the sides at the Riverside. The scoreline was the same but the gulf in class and status between the sides was massive.
The Spanish side – “the Yellow Submarine” – torpedoed Aitor Karanka’s side who had won four on the spin in their pre-season build-up and threatened to sink the rising tide of August optimism fostered by some shrewd signings. Here’s the match report.
Losing to Villarreal wasn’t a disaster. It wasn’t an embarrassment. It wasn’t an indication that Boro wil struggle next term. But it was a massive step up in class. It was a quantum leap from brushing aside Rochdale and Hartlepool last week to being given a Riverside runaround by the team that finished sixth in La Liga last season.
Boro had plenty of possession and worked hard to harry and hustle and press and close and worked hard to contain a very good side. And they had some decent chances too. In the first half Daniel Ayala had a “goal” ruled out for offside and £2.8m new boy Kike flashed a glancing header just wide and fired a weak angled shot straight at the keeper. In the second Lee Tomlin dipped a free kick just over the bar and James Husband spooned one high and wide. But they were few and far between.
The well drilled (and at times aggressive) Spanish side in contrast scythed through the Boro defence several times with ease and clinically took two chances to win – and created a few more besides – without ever needing to go through the gears. You felt that had Boro scored they had plenty in reserve to step up the tempo and firepower.
The second half was disrupted by a string of substitutions – there was a Football Manager vibe with double, treble and at one point quadruple substitutions with 16 changes in all – that took any shape or intensity out of game that had some bite early on.
But there are positives to take out of it. Teesside got a first glimpse of the players who will spearhead next season’s mooted promotion push. Kike looked lively. He had “good feet for a big lad” with a few mazy dribbles, some neat twists and turns and a delightful back-heel flick and he was inches away from heading what would have been a leveller.
And Emilio Nsue – who has barely been introduced to the squad let alone had time to do any serious training with them – came on for a cameo and looked direct and pacy and put in a decent square ball for fellow new recruit James Husband to screw off target.
Plus, while Boro fell short, they will not come up against a team that good again this season unless they get drawn against a top half Premier League team in the cups. Defeat should not lead to too much gnashing and wailing.
And that team will not be the side that start against Birmingham. And certainly not the one that will go into September. After the game Aitor Karanka said he expected to have several new faces in before the big kick-off. Boro are working hard to bring in the first choice right-back, another wideman to give extra options in the ‘three’, another striker plus a couple of Chelsea loanees. Then there will be Big Ken, judged not fit enough today.
Bring it on.