ALBERT Adomah was red hot as he came back in from the cold on a night marked by a classy brace, a public embrace and Boro in second place.
The recently “wantaway” winger bounced back from the naughty step with a bang as he claimed an assist and a goal in a rousing Riverside return and it was hugs all round as Albert and Aitor kissed and made up in a hard-fought 3-1 win over battling Brentford.
Albert and Aitor sitting in a tree… frozen out flanker back in the fold
Credit to Albert for seizing the moment, being the game changer, slamming home his goal and making a very public display of affection as he rushed to the touchline to embrace the boss and show the world the rift had been healed amid cheers from an adoring Riverside crowd.
And credit to Aitor too for his perfect timing. He introduced Albert at a crucial moment when the pressure was on and invited him to complete his rehabilitation in the spotlight and prove his point. And it came off. He can claim to be a shrewd psychologist to make a shrewd substitution with a player fired up and focused and swinging the game. Everyone’s a winner.
The winger has had his nose to the grindstone in training to work his way back into Airor Karanka’s plans after a dressing room bust-up and a subsequent written transfer request. There were no offers on deadline day, although to be fair Boro never invited any. They left him to stew while insisting he was still in their plans and still an important player.
He has had a difficult two weeks, said Aitor. He had been left out of the squad for three games – that Boro won – had been training alone for a spell and then was gradually reintegrated. Then after a fortnight of frustration and fidgeting he finally got his chance – and boy, did he take it.
The fans’ favourite flanker came in from the cold as a substitute on the hour to loud cheering and singing. His name had already been hailed as it was read out before the game and had a warm reception as warmed up on the touchline in the first half and his inclusion was a risk. Had things gone horribly wrong and Boro struggled and gone behind the symbolic calls for the flanker would have grown and been a coded criticism of the boss.
But it went well. It was sticky for a spell as the comfort of a commanding first half and one goal interval lead was wiped away as battling Brentford made a match of it and levelled soon after the break.
Enter Albert on the hour. He soon had the Riverside roaring as he teed up a goal within minutes, wriggling down the right and chipping to the far post for goal machine Cristhian Stuani to bundle in his second.
Then soon after he burst through onto a David Nugent ball to slam home Boro’s third and take a massive step towards rehabilitation and first be mobbed by his team-mates then leap into the arms of the boss.
“Sorry.” “No I’m sorry.” “Come here you big daft get.”
He is certainly a crowd pleaser. And he is also smart. He has jumped through the hoops and battled his way back into the good books. Albert has knuckled down, shown contrition and then made a game-changing contribution return. You can’t ask for more than that.
But the former first team fixture may not find it so easy to regain what had been an automatic slot on the team-sheet. Things have changed.
While he has been left kicking his heels on the fringes Boro have been playing well and won three games in a row. That has eased any political pressure the boss had been under to play him. As we know there is an iron law of inverse ability and players get better by the week when they are sidelined and the team are losing. But Bristol and the air of growing unease and sporadic sniping feels a long time ago now.
Albert had not featured in the matchday party for three games and Boro won them all and looked balanced, patient in possession and potent. In those three games Boro have scored seven goals and felt their way towards a shape and group that looks to have real potential.
His spell in internal exile has reinforced Aitor Karanka’s authority while results have undermined any notion that the Albert is indispensable. That leaves him with a lot of work to do. Not only have the team played well in his absence but a distinct rival for his position has emerged.
Another game, another goal: Cristhian Stuani can’t stop scoring
Some critics had already decided that Cristhian Stuani “can’t play on the right” after a stodgy first start in the defeat to Bristol City but he has played there for Uruguay and in La Liga and Aitor clearly rates him in that position.
When he first arrived I couldn’t believe Boro fans weren’t wetting themselves with excitement at a player with such an impressive pedigree but everyone seemed mesmerised with Jordan Rhodes hypnotic pricetag and incredibly plenty of people shrugged or were disappointd.
But with another two goal haul – that’s seven for the season already and five in four – and an impressive display of industrious and assertive flankmanship he is starting to make the pre-emptive snipers look silly. Patrick Bamford got 19 last season. This bloke has got over a third of that haul already and looks clinical and comes alive in the box. If Aitor wants him on the right then Albert will have to really produce week in, week out if he wants to win that berth back.
Meanwhile Stewart Downing has had electric sporadic spells on that flank too and for Diego Fabbrini can do that job too… and we haven’t seen yet how the arrival of left sided deadline day signing Carlos de Pena will change the dynamics and the need to field as many of the most effective players at once. There is no guaranteed shirt for Albert now as there was last year – there is no nailed on place for anyone now – and he will need regular rousing displays to make him a fixture. But then, we have always known that Aitor nurtures competition and constantly raises the bar.
Carlos and Kike take their place on an awesome looking bench
Meanwhile de Pena has had to wait. The new Uruguayan winger was on what looked an awesome bench that included not just Adomah but also top league scorer Kike and Adam Forshaw who must wonder what he has to do to get a start, although, it is hard to argue with the results so far.
And talking of benches…
What a difference in the Brentford side. The previous encounter was the last game under lights at the Riverside and it finished with everyone on the pitch celebrating a trip to Wembley.
For this visit they had no Alex Pritchard, probably their best player last season, and no goal-getter Andre Gray, who made a £9m move to Burnley.
And as a radical stat-based shake-up (and injury crisis) takes hold at Griffin Park, Brentford named just six subs – and two of them were goal-keepers. But then, Jim Platt once scored a hat-trick for Boro reserves and Stuart Pearce tried to out-fox us by putting David James up front. And maybe they have good striking stats in training. Analytics eh?
Brentford’s new model is based on individual performance data and matchday modelling with selection and tactics heavily influenced by laptops in the dug-out. It is the appliance of science.
I quite like stats too: Boro beat promotion rivals Brentford four times last season, 4-0 and 1-0 in the regular fixtures then again in the play-off semi-final double header, 2-1 away and 3-0 at the Riverside.
Boro have now won eight games in a row against Brentford. In leagues games they have won 10 and drawn one of the last 12 games against the Bees going back to before the war. That’s good stats.
Beyond Brentford I’m starting to like the look of the numbers at the Riverside too. For all the nervous talk of Boro struggling at home against bus-parkers and teams digging tactical trenches, the record on Teesside turf is actually incredible: Boro have won 10 of the last 12 at home with a total of 23 goals scored and just four conceded.
The rude awakening of Bristol City was only the second defeat at the Riverside in 2015. The previous was the carbon-copy cock-up of Leeds in February when the visitors netted early then somehow held out against an onslaught. Before that Boro’s last defeat was back in August 2014. That’s good numbers. Run that through your lap-top.