RIGHT…. it looks like Boro are going to have to do this the hard way. So what’s new.
Boro were left badly bruised at Vicarage Road – again – as arch-Nemesis Troy Deeney struck an opener out of the blue just as Aitor Karanka’s side appeared to be getting a grip on the game then a second half sizzler killed off any hopes of a revival.
It was a deeply disappointing day as Boro once again surrendered the initiative and squandered a chance to seize control of a crazy Championship title race by wilting away from home. But it is not terminal. Boro haven’t been knocked out of the league.
Nailed on striker Deeney – who has has scored in the last four meetings at Watford and has just become the first Hornet’s player ever to hit 20 goals in three successive seasons – stung a sluggish defence with a cracking opener out of the blue after a promising but fruitless and frustrating spell for Boro.
The newly reshaped back-line (loanees Dwight Tiendalli and Fernando Amorebieta and were given debuts to add oomph and experience against Watford’s big units up front) took a lot of stick in cyberspace for the opener but it was the statuesque midfield that completely failed to close down a Guedioura cross and Jonathan Woodgate – who has been imperious in his recent outings – who misjudged the flight of the ball leaving Deeney to burst through unchallenged and slam home an angled exocet.
Serial Nemesis Troy Deeney gets his mandatory goal
And it wasn’t the reshaped defence who failed to provide punch up front. Boro had a few fruitless spells of sustained possession 30 yards out and a couple of half chances but they couldn’t seriously hurt Watford. Lee Tomlin, still struggling to match the height of January hype, drilled a hurried volley straight at keeper Gomes and Grant leadbitter brought a good full length save from a free-kick but apart from that there was little threat in the first half while Watford’s more direct approach always looked more potent.
Boro were just starting to show again and get a foothold after the break when they were undone by a self-inflicted wound for the second. Leadbitter was caught in possession on the flank and mugged by a swarm of Hornets and with the option of hoofing it out of play he chose instead to back-heel the ball aimlessly into space and former Boro target Ben Watson whipped it away, darted forward and squared quickly for Odion Ighalo to swivel round Woodgate and ram home a rocket.
Game over. Boro huffed and puffed after that and George beavered away and at times single-handedly tried to claw a way back but it wasn’t to be. Boro didn’t have the fire-power or the guile to salvage the situation and the game fizzled out into flaccid flapping, compounded by a cheap, indisciplined and stupid stoppage time booking for Leadbitter that will cost him a two game suspension. Incidentally Adam Clayton was very lucky to avoid an early caution that would have meant he joined him.
Stung: Smarting supremo Aitor Karanka dismayed at defeat
There were a couple of half chances after the break, Albert chested a Friend cross wide, George played a neat one-two with Kike but had his shot blocked by Hoban, Kike got behind the defence to bring a decent if routine save and a few other efforts flew well wide.
Over the game as a whole Boro lacked penetration up front with Patrick Bamford (in his favoured role up front) again isolated as Tomlin drifted too deep and the conservative wide men rarely got into forward positions and the team as a whole never looked like mustering the fire-power needed to beat a well drilled Watford.
So, once again Boro have scrambled to the summit and then slipped back. After Good Friday took them top they have slipped back to fourth – but that has been the template for this term. And not just for Boro. It seems every side that gets to the top of this crazy division of weekly coupon-busters crumbles, stumbles and falls away.
This has been a campaign marked out not by any team waltzing away with it but by the sometimes erratic progress of a slightly tipsy dad dancer. Two steps forward, one step back. One step on your other foot, wobble, stumble and fall. Whoops.
Or in George Friend’s case, head-long plunge over the advertising hoardings and a heavy landing on the artificial turf. Crash. Bang. Wallop.
But like George, Boro can bounce straight back up and get straight back into action. Losing at title rivals and getting knocked off the top at Watford was a stinging blow – but it wasn’t terminal, whatever the pre-emptive doom-and-gloomers say.
It is natural to be angry. Disappointed. Frustrated. To question the line-up, tactics, tempo, team and individuals. To look for scapegoats: Tomlin was a genius in January not he is taking flak. It’s along way back empty-handed and embarrassed. Especially when the defeat has been shown live on television. But don’t let the passionate post-mortem cloud any sense of perspective. The season is NOT over. The last match may still smart but the important one now is the next one: win that and we are right back in it.
The same anguished cries that Boro were out of it “and probably wouldn’t even make the play-offs now” went up after an equally disappointing result – and far worse performance – at Bournemouth before the break – but bizarrely after the next round of games the side found themselves back on top. How did that happen?
It happened because, whatever the pain caused by defeat and whatever the frustrations at the flaws in the team, Boro remain firmly enmeshed in the four way (Five way? Six way?) scrum at the top against equally uncertain and inconsistent sides. And that means despite the dismay in the aftermath of the Watford woe, we are still in with a shout. Aitor remains upbeat about his side and proud of what they have already achieved this season. He believes they are still in with a shout.
Why not? Boro remain two points off a promotion place with five games to go. We’d all love to be 12 points clear in a Charltonesque procession but the reality is that this team – no team – has never been good enough to grab the division by the throat.
But Boro remain a good side. Especially at home. They remain in the mix. And we have a five game sprint now that will be tense and tourniquet tight but still holds out the tangible possibility of glory. And it starts with two games at the Riverside.
What we know of this league is that there are twists and turns every week. Anyone who has ruled Boro out on the basis of Watford really hasn’t been paying attention. Four wins would probably see Boro promoted. The big prize is still there. Let’s have out gripes now, get it out of our system and come back fired up ready for Rotherham
Here’s what I said before the game. The maths have changed. The sentiment still stands.
A SIX POINT summit showdown with Watford. A televised top of the table tussle. League leaders Boro against third placed Watford. Fantastic. This is exactly what we wanted.
I can’t be doing with all these faint-hearts and habitual nay-sayers who keep telling us that all the other sides are better than Boro. All the rest of our rivals score more, or play better football, or are mentally stronger and won’t wobble, or have easier fixtures. Or that Boro can’t defend, can’t score, have injuries mounting up and have been ‘found out’ by opposition coaches and at some point will implode.
Jeez. Look at the table: BORO ARE TOP. We have more points. All these other “better” team are below. That’s objective evidence. All your fears are just that. Your fears. Don’t project them onto the team. And don’t let them spoil an historic moment. Get behind Aitor’s Army and enjoy our first serious promotion push for almost 20 years. This is what we wanted. Yes it is tense. Yes there are nerves. Yes, the stakes are high and it could go wrong and kick us in the teeth but that is the nature of the beat. Nothing ventured… This season so far has been FANTASTIC. And it could be about to get better.
‘OWWWAY! Let’s Fight every inch of the way through the last six games
“But our form is rubbish.” Boro have won three out of four. Including major dents inflicted on Ipswich and Derby. Now we have a chance to dent Watford too. A chance to open up a five point gaps that would mean they would have to win two more games than Boro in the remaining five fixtures. And as Boro kick off early a win would pile the pressure on the other to win or lose ground. This is a golden opportunity to seize control of the division.
Boro have every chance now to take up residence in the automatic places. Yes, Boro lost at Bournemouth and it was a woeful and morale-bruising display but it was one match and it came at the end of a strength sapping #fixturebomb of nine games in 29 days. That one game did not wipe out he good work of the season up to that point. And it did not happen in isolation and while Teessiders only see their own team’s flaws and fragilities, they all have injuries, all the other sides are wobbling and cracking and stuttering too.
And it did not even drag Boro away from the summit. Watford, who kicked off later, failed to take advantage. The Hornets got to the top for the first time and got a nosebleed. That has been a feature of this season. Derby have got to the top and gone into a nosedive. Bournemouth have got to the top several times then slipped away. They made a habit of it. No of these teams are superhuman. Let’s not be scared by bogeymen of our own creation. Let’s not scare each other. Boro have been in a four way share of the top. Then a three way split. Then two. And then there was one. A win tomorrow would leave them clear.
Of course it *could* go wrong. Boro *might* slip back. But that wouldn’t be the end of the world. There are plenty of of pre-emptive pessimists who “wouldn’t fancy Boro in the play-offs against any of this lot”. WHY? “Because Boro struggle against the top teams.” Look at the teams behind us that we *could* come up against. Derby? We beat them home and away. Brentford. We beat them home and away. Ipswich, we lost down there but battered them here and won on aggregate. Watford? So far honours are even.
But Boro have a golden chance to change that and seize control of their own destiny at Vicarage Road. They have a chance to torpedo the Hornets too and take a massive step towards automatic promotion. Exciting isn’t it. The season is coming to a climax and we are in a great position. Boro are top on merit. And they are in good form.
We have the best defence in the division (Bournemouth aside Boro have leaked ONE goal in the last three), we have a well balanced squad, a system everyone understands, good players and great manager. All the ingredients are there. We are top of the table with six games to go. Everything is in our own hands. It is a brilliant position to be in.
Yes, we have a couple of very difficult away games against rivals – and not losing at Watford and Norwich could be crucial – but we also have three games and that could be even more significant. Boro have lost ONCE at the Riverside since August. That form could be decisive. And apart from Wolves our visitors have little to play for. Three wins would give Boro 84 points. That will take Boro to the verge of promotion. Just two or three points from the three games on the may be enough so don’t panic if we don’t win at Watford .
Other teams are scared of us. Seriously. Beyond Teesside Boro are seen as the real deal. Rival managers, fans and the national pundits all believe Boro are in pole position for one of the promotion spots. It is time for Boro fans to start to believe it too. Believe it and articulate it. Get behind the team. This is the moment we have waited for since relegation,. It may be our best and only chance. And fans have a role to play here. We can’t squander an epoch-defining moment by waiting cynically or sceptically to see how we are going into the Brighton game on the final day.
There are six games left. Let’s enjoy every single minute of every one of them.
COME ON BORO
Right, usual drill: you can predict the score and how the game will pan out here now and then we’ll all gather later and laugh at your naivety or applaud your prescient punditry. Then be the first on your block to get your post-match reports/gripes up while I do my work and drive home and I’ll get my own impressions up ASAP.