AS THE referee skulked off the Riverside pitch amid a sonic boom of high-pitch whistling and booing it was hard to hear the alarm bells. But they were there.
Boro officials and fans – and Aitor Karanka – will come away from the reality check of a 2-1 defeat to a well drilled but unremarkable Palace pointing an accusing finger at the officials after two deafening but unrewarded shouts for what looked like obvious handballs. And to be fair, ‘you’ve seen them given.’
And had George Friend – who looked to be ring-rusty after his spell out injured – been a single stride faster at the death there could have been a third spot-kick shout with no grey areas as he was skittled over millimetres outside the box
Supporters may go away simmering at the standard of refereeing and the two missed moments that could have swung the game. Welcome to the Premier League.
In a barn-storming finish Boro piled on the pressure and carved out some excellent chances with fired-up Gaston Ramirez adding zip and guile and Marten de Roon putting steel into midfield to help swing the balance of the game.
And new boy Adama Traore showed a glimpse of electric pace in his cameo and after some early stumbles as he over elaborated he put two cracking balls across the face of goal in a spirited fight-back that had the Riverside atmosphere crackling and almost, almost, forced a leveller in what was an entertaining game.
So there were positives in the way Boro recovered from a torrid opening and gradually clawed back into the game to apply some sustained pressure and had they taken their chances they may have got something. Even Alan Pardew admitted that.
But beneath the surface of smarting at perceived injustice and ‘what ifs’, there was an issue that will sting just as much: Boro not only lost (for the first time in 14 league games since the Lost Weekend at Charlton back in March) but they conceded two goals at home for the first time in two years. And it could have been more.
It was first double dent at the Riverside record since a Land of the Giants Sheffield Wednesday long-balled them into submission in a 3-2 win in August 2014.
And worst, it was self-inflicted. Both goals that struck to the heart of a long and proud defensive record were leaked in alarmingly shocking fashion.
The bottom line is that Boro were the architects of their own downfall.
They looked creaky and disorganised, and that is arguably the first choice back four – and three of them from the regimental rigid rearguard that was so stingy last season. I’m not sure I like this new unimproved Boro.
Both goals were textbook examples of how not to defend. The first – which came in a spell where the movement and pace of the Palace front line and flankers was tearing holes in and around the Boro box – was a two-fold malfunction.
First Friend, reeling from being turned in and out by jet-heeled Zaha, and Stewart Downing stood off and failed to close down and cut out what was a routine cross to the far post. Then at the delivery point, Ayala, usually an astute reader of the game, focused on the flight of the ball and seemed totally unaware or the deadly arrival of Benteke who was offered an unchallenged close range header.
For the second goal Clayton, so often a ultra-reliable midfield metronome who blocks and destroys and intercepts, stood rooted as a ball was slotted forward towards the Boro box where Friend – so physically strong at times last term – was casually brushed aside by powerful Zaha who had burst down his blind side.
It was a game that Friend will want to forget. The fans’ favourite has had a tough start to the season and was given a similar torrid time in the opening spell at Sunderland by Adnan Januzaj before gradually getting a grip. And it won’t get any easier. There is plenty of pace on the flanks in the top flight and he will need to adjust quickly. But all the back-line will know they weren’t good enough individually or collectively on the day.
And not just the defence. The holding two in the engine room were misfiring too with Clayton missing a beat most of the game. It is a long time since he was substituted for anything other than an injury. The impact de Roon had on the shape of the game underlined how Boro had struggled in that area.
And up front Boro will need to take the chances when they come. There may not be many in some close cut games. Alvaro Negredo was through on goal in the first half and made it easy for the keeper while all the energy and pressure in the second rarely forced a save.
The goal came from a face-saving Dani Ayala header thumped home from a corner after an incredible leap which partly redeemed him for being beat in the air for the Palace opener but with all the possession and attacking late on Boro failed to unduly hurt them.
Boro will need to hear those alarm bells and act quickly.
The Premier League has been a big step up and Boro are facing sides that are fitter and faster and better organised as a default. All newly promoted face the same physical and mental challenge as they try to bridge that gap – and let us not forget Aitor Karanka’s side have started well, banked some precious points and showed in their first three games they can adapt and match the opposition. There has been much to enjoy and take heart from.
But after a fairly gentle start against sides in the bottom half, the fixtures will start to get tougher now, the games more testing, the errors more likely to be punished.
Boro will need to sharpen up – and fast.
Stewart Downing was my man of the match. Here’s my ever popular hostage to fortune “what bloody game were you watch” match ratings.