BORO made a mockery of the pre-match pitch-fork waving with a blistering start and
“No Rhodes – no goals!” “What’s Downing playing for? He’s rubbish!” “Aitor’s playing for a draw again.” “All his best players have been left on the bench.” “There’s no creativity”. ” We are throwing this season away….”
But the pre-emptive angst was hurled to the floor and crushed in the jubilant early celebrations as rejuvenated Boro burst out of the blocks to grab the game – and the promotion race – by the throat.
Back from their blip, One point off the top with two games in hand and a golden opportunity to really turn the screw on Tuesday at Blackburn – the rearranged fixture from the Boxing Day postponement – when a refreshed and fired-up Rhodes will no doubt be unleashed against his old club burning to prove a point.
It was a great day out for the travelling Boro fans who had arrived in good spirits, even if Craven Cottage has not always been a happy hunting ground. They had lost four of the previous five and many fans are still haunted by the surreal shenanigans in stoppage time in the crazy 4-3 defeat that ended automatic promotion hopes.
But then, Boro always play well away from home when Jose Mourinho – the Lucky One – turns up to play. Quick, someone get that man a half season ticket.
His last outing was Brighton and Boro seized control from the first whistle there too so he will now think his protege’s team are habitual sprint starters.
The display was bright and confident and full of belief and was in sharp contrast to much to the groaning when the team sheet was unveiled.
And it was two of the players who have come in from considerable cyber-space sniping in recent months that carved Fulham apart for the opener.
There was a flash of vintage Steaua period Stewart Downing – this month’s scapegoat-elect – as he latched onto a neat ball by Adam Forshaw down the left flank. He wriggled past the flat-footed defensive wheelie bin Stearman to whip a perfect cross to the far post for Albert Adomah – written off in January when the terrace chatter had it “he’ll never play for us again” – popped up unmarked to head home.
It was a brilliant start that had the 4,000 or so full-throated beery Boro fans EIOing in wild abandon and revealed that the ‘neutral area’ was anything but.
It was the start of a blistering spell as the assertive team pushed forward with panache and zip. They showed urgency and crisp, intelligent movement and ambition as they repeatedly scythed through an admittedly shambolic Fulham.
The Cottagers started with three centre-backs, wing-backs and two defensive midfielders in a bid to contain Boro’s top dollar front line but the set up was creaking and leaking like a rusty raft made from oil drums on an primary school Outward Bound course.
After the goal Boro were quick to roar into them. Adam Forshaw was a study in perpetual motion, buzzing about in midfield and playing perceptive forward balls while showing bursts of speed that suggested he may get on the end of one of them.
Adomah was tricky, fast, hungry and direct showing that putting him on the naughty step once a month may be the key to unlocking his potential. Downing was staying to the left of Jeremy Corbyn, beat his man and putting inviting balls into the box and Ross McCormack – a supposed arch-Nemesis and everyone’s ‘daft quid banker’ – was anonymous.
Boro should have been out of sight long before Grant Leadbitter stroked home the second from the spot. They had played some brilliant, liquid stuff – the build up to the penalty was a delight – and a string of potent incursions had ashen faced Fulham rocking.
Of course, there was the mandatory nervous spell – this is Boro after all – and just before the break Dimi made his weekly wonder save, tipping over an acrobatic effort from Dembele.
And soon after that Ritchie De Laet was well placed to hook a header off the line with an incredible athletic scoop and there were some minor jitters but it was punchless pressure and they never really looked likely to break through.
Boro did a job on them. They stifled Fulham and bundled them into a tactical strait jacket and then methodically buckled it up. And as Fulham tried to wriggle free Boro look to hit them on the break and could have had a few more late on.
After the early goals Boro were back to their best in a box ticking exercise that announced their return to the title chase in style.
It was a great display going forward with both wingers beating their men and ripping down the flanks and getting the ball in the box quickly and dangerously.
And with David Nugent working the defensive line relentlessly and Gaston Rameriz adding deft touches to change the tempo and direction of the flow Boro never let Fulham rest.
The engine room was excellent too with Forshaw a study in movement, constantly looking to get the ball forward or out wide and snapping into tackles. And Grant Leadbitter was a human shield in front of the defence, snarling and setting the tone of the display.
The defence were superb too, not least teenager Dael Fry. Alongside fellow Academy graduate Ben Gibson he helped stifled Ross McCormack – the third best striker in the Championship according to the gaffer – and Moussa Dembele. They looked totally unflustered against the most prolific strike force in the Championship.
So: a second successive win, a clean sheet, two goals, a regimental display in getting the lead then slowly strangling the game, and a significant step towards the summit.
Job done. Wobble over. Game on. Let’s do this.