Middlesbrough report

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Middlesbrough 2-3 Latics
Saturday 21st January 2006

David Thompson and Neil Mellor may not agree but Steve Maclaren is almost certainly spending his Sunday contemplating on the cruel nature of football. Not that Latics were lucky to win this neutral pleasing clash in the North East, their first half performance alone was enough to warrant the 3 points, but Boro were so close to getting something from, what must have seemed like, nothing only to have it cruelly snatched away from them.

This game couldn’t really have been much more different than the 1-1 bore draw between the sides at the JJB, it certainly had plenty to savour. Boro’s current form and their manager’s abilities under even closer scrutiny against the back drop of the latest of Sven’s indiscretions. Both sides struggling to recapture some form and 2 players on either side hoping to make the difference. For the ‘tics the aforementioned got unexpected (well I think so) starts on debut; on the other side, Downing and Southgate making more than welcome returns to the fold.

It was the debutants that made the first impression, and quickly. Within 2 minutes Latics had managed to separate the defence and midfield, rather than drive a bus through David Thompson drove a pass to Mellor whose instinctive flick put Roberts in for a powerful shot that the Boro keeper could only parry. Roberts, captain in the absence of De Zeuuw, seemed to take on this responsibility with relish, looking a couple of inches taller, more solid and more assured. His celebration for the goal, arm in the air pointing at the armband underlining his obvious pride.

To say it was all Latics from that point on would be unfair. Middlesbrough had their chances, within a couple of minutes of the goal Pollitt had saved a point blank header Pogatetz and there’d been a maybe shout for a penalty. Despite those, we were in control Teale and Thompson especially having plenty of joy from wide positions. Mellor was also causing problems and his partnership with Roberts looked well developed, belying the single training session they’d had together. On a couple of occasions the loanee put Jason through to prove that one on ones aren’t his strength, both times Mellor had made himself available for the return ball, give it a couple of weeks and he’ll hopefully be getting those passes.

Given the dominance it was a surprise that it took half an hour for the next goal to come, even more surprising was the source (or at least the method) of the goal. Mellor put Teal in down the line to put a lovely ball into an under populated box, at first glance it looked as if the move was going nowhere only for Thomson, surely one of the shortest players in the League, to sneak around his marker and head home. You could highlight the poor Boro defending, but to do so would distract from the quality of attacking play that led to the chance.

Whatever Maclaren said to his players was enough to wake them up. For the first 20 minutes or so Latics hardly got a look in, and were looking uncomfortable at the back. Our weakness at set pieces had been highlighted in the Leeds game and if Jewell needed any more confirmation that some hard work on the training ground was required he got it in this game. With first Hasslebaink and then Yakubu capitalising on our frailties, of course the excellent delivery from Downing helped and can surely be taken as a pointer for us at the other end of the pitch. Even if you defend corners well, good delivery gets you chances.

Having pulled back to 2-2 smart money would have to go on Boro to finish the job, but true the never say never attitude that has run through every game this season Latics managed to get back in the game. All the same, with Thompson and Mellor tiring and relatively few, if any, ‘change the game’ substitutions available you couldn’t see us winning it. That was until Mellor showed why he is rated as one of the best prospects around. It’s a truism that the best strikers can have no involvement in a game other than to pop up in the right place at the right time to score. The young lad’s lack of games had shown in the second half, and yet at the death he was there in the six yard box to bang in the winner.

The chance came after a poor Bullard corner had been cleared back out to the right wing. Given a second chance the ball was better and found the feet of Roberts. You’d have expected a shot, as probably did the Boro defence, but no, what we got was a deft flick on to Mellor, to extend the list of debutant goal scorers. As Jewell pointed out, the assist came from a man who scored within the first minute of his debut, the impact of scoring the winner in the last minute is just as massive, if not more so.

The plaudits have to go across the team who on the whole look to be getting back to something like the form that got us into the top 6. If there’s criticism to be laid out then everyone has to hold their hands up about the set pieces that led to their goals, on top of that Henchoz didn’t have one of his better games and in the first half especially looked uncomfortable. On the positive side Teale yet again had a confidence boosting performance; on this form it’s going to be hard for Thompson to shift him. To describe Thompson and Mellor’s performances as promising would be under selling them. A goal and an assist apiece and all round good performances is a lot to live up to, if they both can build on that then they’ll undoubtedly be stars.

In the end this was a deserved win and one that hopefully will turn the tide back in the right direction. It will also provide a confidence boost as we head for Highbury on Wednesday, the result here was always more important that the next game, the three points putting us a win away from the mythical 40 points, but as my daughter will tell you the icing is always the best bit of the cake.

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