I’M BUSY. (On a Saturday night? What is going on?) I’ll get back to you soon. But briefly…
A lack-lustre and laboured leap from the play-offs launch pad fell flat. It may have turned out to be a dead rubber but Boro will need to bounce back quickly. They will need to add real teeth and tempo to beat Brentford.
It was an opportunity to put in an up-lifting, entertaining display and record an emphatic win in front of a rammed Riverside to get Teesside buzzing and go onto the two-legged shoot-out on a high and with momentum. But Boro barely got out of second gear.
They had the better of the possession and most of the half-chances against a travel-sick side that have been woeful on the road but the attacks lacked conviction with the ragged final ball too often going astray forcing frontmen to stretch and stumble and check back with hurried shots being screwed and spooned and stabbed straight into defenders and nothing really clicked. The team was mis-shapen and mis-firing and while they never looked in real danger – Dimi never had a save to make – they never really got a grip.
Aerial combat: Lee Tomlin in full flight
It was an instantly forgettable game on a day when we really need to create memories and light the fuse for the final push towards Wembley. Now things feel flat. Play like that at Brentford and there will only be two games left this season.
On balance though, while the performance and the result were disappointing, the outcome may be for the best. With Derby’s long, slow-motion implosion complete, Boro now play Brentford, who we have beaten twice, after they leapfrogged into fifth – and it seemed in the final few minutes Aitor Karanka had decided that was the best fixture. With the crowd chanting “attack, attack, attack” he appeared to consciously reign the side in and settle for the draw. He seemed to call over Grant to tell him to keep it tight and not chase the winner. After that the team started passing back and running down the clock
Abdicating third spot to Norwich meant Boro avoided being paired with Ipswich and thus preventing the obligatory defeat and Daryl Murphy goal at Portman Road – and it also means the pair of pitchfork wielders must now clash in what are sure to be volatile back-to-back “Old Farm” derbies with all the parochial pressure and historic animosity that entails: hopefully they will kick bits out of each other and rack up a lot of bumps and bruises and maybe even a suspension or two.
But forget about who we may play at Wembley; we have to get there first. And that will take a marked increase in intensity, discipline, hunger and firepower from the low-key stroll against the Seagulls.
So, to Brentford…..
What we said before the game….
BRIGHTON. The sell-out showdown with the Seagulls was pencilled in as a possible promotion party when there was a feeding frenzy and briefly a black-market for tickets last week. The frustration of Fulham took the shine off that but it is still a massive match.
There were some suggestions that Aitor should field a weakened side after missing out on the automatic spot, put fringe players and kids in and rest regulars ready for the play-offs. That is crazy talk. This is NOT a dead rubber. This is a hugely important game, not least because Boro have an obligation to deliver a display of pride and passion for the full-house who have paid full price and will be expecting Boro to bust a gut to win and win well.
More than that, this game is our launchpad into the play-offs. We need to reach Championship escape velocity now and take that into the shoot-out to come.
Boro need to win to hold onto third spot and maintain the psychological advantage of being visibly the best of the rest. It is a fallacy that the teams who finish fifth or sixth do better in the play-offs aided by some mystic power at being given a second chance. In fact five years in the last ten the team that has finished third won the play-offs. The team that finished fourth have won it twice. That is a reflection of performance over the season.
But more than that, Boro need to win to put the late blow of Fulham emphatically behind them and go into the play-offs with confidence and momentum and with the crowd behind them. Collective morale took a dent at Craven Cottage. Having come from two down with 10 men people would have been buzzing over the steely spirit shown had Boro drawn but the hard work felt as it it had evaporated with the stoppage time sucker punch. A poor, or laboured or stuttering or tentative show against Brighton would leave people nervous going into the play-offs when we really need a sense of unity and destiny based on a resounding win showing desire, determination and a ruthless edge.
It is important to regain some positive momentum now. And the odds are in our favour. Boro have won 11 out of 12 at home. Brighton have nothing to play for and have struggled to score away from home. Boro are fired up to put things right after Fulham and are smarting at Aitor’s challenge to prove they are good enough to play in the Premier League. It all adds up to a routine win – but we need something extra too. Zest. Desire. We need to see sure signs that this is a side that can succeed in their March to the Arch.
My #DaftQuid is going on 3-0. And I think you can get 6/1 anytime scorer on Muzzy if you fancy him to come off the bench fired up by football’s Inevitability Drive and Aitor’s glowing praise after he signed his new deal this week.
The giant surfer is out and the Twe12th Man are planning a tribute to Steve Gibson before the game with a minute’s chanting of his name followed by a minute of applause. And no doubt the Red Faction have got an end-of-term display lined up too. It will be a full house and a high-tempo start with have the Riverside rocking. I can’t wait.
Usual drill: post your scorecasts and predict how the game will pan out here and we’ll all meet up again later for a debrief and to discuss the play-offs.
Blog icon Jarkko is here with his Finnish footy team. They will be in the Navi before the game if you fancy a swift pint with Boro’s Baltic contingent get yourself there.