BORO blew hot and cold in a Baltic battle with Birmingham .
Despite the atrocious conditions in a rain lashed refrigerated Riverside, Boro almost brought the game to the boil in an entertaining first half as they picked and probed and passed with panache – but they froze in front of goal time and again after carving open Birmingham. They had the chances to put the game to bed before the break.
Then in a soaking sub-zero second half City looked slicker. They started well to sound the alarm then several times almost caught Boro cold and only Dimi’s mandatory weekly wonder-saves kept them in it. “Freezer jolly good fellow.”
Then, as feet turned numb and fingers froze among frustrated fans, the thermometer blew in stoppage time as tempers bubbled over and David Nugent had a hot-headed moment as he put a choke-hold on Stephen Gleeson and threw him to the floor as the City man tried to prevent a quick free-kick. Aitor wasn’t happy but said he won’t appeal. How could he?
Arguably the ref could have nipped it in the bud – the City man stole the ball from the official’s toes and carried it away. A whistle then and a card would have prevented the escalation in a mini-melee and we wouldn’t have to worry about the three game ban. Not that there are any excuses for such rash action two feet away from the ref. It was born of frustration but it was stupid. A hot-tempered moment of madness to f-f-f-f-f-inish off a nithering nil-nil.
It was a grey day for the battle with the Blues. Heavy ice-flecked rain from a slate sky and a bitter blast created the kind of harsh wind-chill micro-climate that makes you seriously question your sanity. It was colder than a penguin’s bum.
It was the sort of day when in darker times – the Tartanised perma-frost of the Strachan era for example – thousands said “sod it” and voted with their feet opting to stay at home in front of the fire with Jeff Stelling. And thousands who turned out today may be regretting they didn’t take that option.
It was a day when only goals were going to warm the soul.
The pitch was just a few fork prods away from being saturated after a morning downpour. The conditions made for moments of clown-shoed chaos on the pitch with a sticky slippy surface meaning the ball would not run true or bounce evenly while players were sliding and stumbling in cartoon surprise at key moments.
At the break Teesside’s former Premier League ref – who has called a few off himself over the years – suggested that if the rain stepped up a gear back to bouncing stair-rods then the man in the middle would seriously think about postponement. It eased off. A bit. But the temperature continued to drop. And the pitch remained a greasy test.
Despite that, Boro played well with some precise passing and neat exchanges… but they were always only a studless slither away from farce.
Boro went close in the first half as a loose ball ran to Stewart Downing on the edge of the box and he slipped as he shaped to shot then tussled on the floor with a defender who won the battle but then promptly miscued his clearance which squirted to Grant Leadbitter and sent a shot skidding through the box only to come back off the inside of the far post.
And down by the flag in the South East corner there was so much surface water that every aqua-planing run down the flank threw up artistic splash-back trails. At one point George did a passable impression of the Tom Finney statue at Preston.
There were two ridiculous slithery scrambles in the Blues box that lead to shots charged down and screwed clearances as Boro kept their cool if not their feet in the first half of the nithering nil-nil.
But temperature at football is directly proportionate to the scoreline. It didn’t feel too cold as Boro dominated the first half, patiently carving out chances that insulated us with the inevitability of goals to come.
So as the game wore on and the final ball floundered the mercury plunged as Birmingham came into the game, looked sharp on the break with Gray and Maghoma – a former Boro target under Tony Mowbray – dangerous.
And it was positively perma-frosty at times as City looked dangerous on the break and the icy hand of fear gripped Boro hearts. And their nether regions. Jesus it was cold.
It was a frustrating game that Boro should have won – but could easily have lost. But it is another clean sheet, one of the building blocks of a successful season and another point banked. And Boro remain second and just two points off top spot. But it was a missed opportunity and leaves the table just as tight although results everywhere teased Teessiders: “Let’s see what you could have won.”
It was a chiller to start a run of B-movies that could set up a blockbuster finale to the season. After Brum, Boro face Burnley on Tuesday then go to Brighton before a Boxing Day beano at Baltic Blackburn.
That run of fixtures can shape the script for the rest of the season.
QUICK: a few words on Birmingham before I go out – very much with arm twisted – to drink lots of beer. Obviously, on paper, Boro should win. Seven wins out of eight in the league. Three wins in a row at home with no goals conceded. Six wins and a draw in seven in the league at the Riverside in fact. With 11 scored and just two conceded. Birmingham started well but have now suffered three defeats on the bounce. Go figure…
Boro launched a tricky six game sequence that will take us into the New Year with a jinx-busting 2-0 win at Ipswich last week that put them briefly on the top. Boro now face a swarm of Bs as after Birmingham come fourth placed Burnley, leaders Brighton then away to the Blackburn and the home of the car-smashers.
But it is not just testing times for Teesside: all the rest of the top six square up to at least three of the others too. The next month should see the table really take shape and with some of the top teams showing signs of the pressure too. Hull have taken just one point from three games. Burnley have wobbled a bit. Brighton left it late last week.
If Boro can keep their rigid rearguard intact through this run, if they can grind out wins that keep us all complaining about the quality rather than the result, if they can keep just doing enough whatever the aesthetics, then the next month can prove pivotal. Potentially, if Boro beat Birmingham they could go top and hole them under the waterline. Then Burnley… a win against them could badly dent them and open a big gap.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Back in Aitor mode: we must take only one game at a time. It will be very difficult. They are a good team. We must be at our best and play in our way and with our intensity and then for this reason we can win the game.
I’ve had a quid on 2-0 and 3-0 every week so far this season and I’m well ahead. I see no reason to change policy now. Over to you. Predict the score and how the game will pan out and then we will regroup later and swap notes.