Sunday, 12 April 2009

32: Middlesbrough 3 – 1 Hull City – 11/04/2009

For the first time this season, chillingly, relegation seems to be a likely prospect. Such a chronic, toothless, panicky display against a side in the deepest of trouble suggests it’s genuinely tough to decipher where the next point is coming from.

City have experience of battles at the top and bottom of late, but talent and nerve has been present at each to make sure the appropriate destiny was reached. This time, we simply don’t look good enough. The bolt is shot.

The gaps in midfield were horrendous. The lack of support in attack obvious. And the terror felt by the goalkeeper was in no doubt whatsoever.

There is no doubt that Matt Duke earned the right to a stab in goal when Boaz Myhill’s future and demeanour was called into question at the turn of the year. And although he has done well, stopping shots and dominating his box, as well as saving the odd penalty, there has been always the nagging doubt that a performance showcasing his general lack of sharpness and non-league heritage would come to the fore. And this was the day for it.

Duke held little, kicked badly and generally looked overawed. All goalkeepers can have bad days. But Duke’s was almost expected, as if we’ve never quite been able to accept that he is entirely worthwhile of being nothing more to Myhill than a reliable understudy. He needs to become that again.

Phil Brown picked Duke behind an unchanged starting XI, with Bernard Mendy still in the team despite a stream of headless, direction-free displays of late. Nick Barmby got the expected stick from the fans of a club he quit more than a decade, while Marlon King’s inevitable presence in the Middlesbrough side prompted some rather unkind, contempt-of-court busting chants from the Tiger Nation. Rather more edifying a selection was George Boateng as a substitute after three months out injured.

It started badly. Ian Ashbee's dilly-dallying on the ball put Kamil Zayatte in trouble and allowed the home side to rob the ball when they had no right. King quickly sent Afonso Alves away, and upon charging down on goal he got a low shot across Duke which the keeper palmed straight ino Tuncay’s path. The Turkish international, a fine footballer, doesn’t miss those.

It was a rotten start, exactly what Brown would have warned against, and it was also wholly preventable, the kind of daft, careless gaffe that will contribute more than most shortcomings to City’s downfall.

Geovanni, now playing his usual roaming role which starts brightly and fades badly, has a double effort at goal – the first blocked, the second deflected over. However, it leads indirectly to City’s lifeline.

The corner is half cleared to a wide position and Barmby collects, duly swerving in a peach of a ball which is attacked with great panache in determination by the rising Manucho, who powers the header in. A great goal, the sort Manucho was borrowed to score, and a great response from City with fewer than ten minutes still gone.

And now we could go on and take Middlesbrough apart. Their build-up had been all about the nerves of the occasion, the back of the camel begging for no more straws, and having clawed back the lead and nullified their early euphoria, City could now make sure the home side were put in their place.

It didn’t happen. Alves had the next chance, blasting over after King had teed him up nicely via a long ball, then City began to exercise influence while showing contemptible finishing skills. Mendy won a free kick which Geovanni swiped profligately over, then the mega-frustrating Craig Fagan went clean through on a defender and took an anvil-subtle touch which allowed Brad Jones to put him off. Manucho had an open goal as the ball spun free, but also a narrow angle and a challenge coming in, and he belted it high and wide.

In the midst of all this, Duke had his first flap, coming for a Stewart Downing free kick which he couldn’t get, and David Wheater won the header cleanly, sending it just beyond the bar.

Middlesbrough recovered from the possession dearth and began to re-assert themselves. Their second goal was greatly aided by the visionary skills of referee Phil Dowd, who decided that Ashbee had taken the ball out of play when working his way out of a tight corner, despite the linesman standing next to Ashbee at the time not raising his flag. It was a controversial decision, given that Dowd was in the penalty area at the time, made all the more controversial when Downing curled a dangerous ball in and Matthew Bates stabbed it beyond an exposed, motionless Duke. Considering how much sway he holds on set-pieces, for and against, this goal will have angered Brown considerably.

The rest of the half was a shabby, featureless encounter with neither side coming close to a scoring chance. Middlesbrough went in at the break happy and with a loud, two-for-one offer crowd applauding them vociferously. City went in for a severe admonishment.

Mendy came out for the second half but then trotted gingerly back in again before it began, obviously changing his mind about his fitness. Dean Marney replaced him, and proceeded to emphasise all that was wrong and lacking about City right now.

Marney is a trier and never hides, but his confidence is so shot right now that when he makes an error, be it with possession or position, it is somehow magnified ten times over and currently he is taking much of the individual stick which the team is earning as a whole. Marney isn’t the most culpable out there – he hasn’t played enough lately to be so – but he is easy to notice when it goes wrong for him. The counter-productivity of slagging off a player who relies on confidence to play doesn’t seem to have registered with the Tiger Nation, mind.

Middlesbrough win a corner. Downing again curls it viciously and Robert Huth gets across it to flick beyond the far post as red-socked boots fly in to try for the final, crucial touch. No joy this time. Michael Turner then gives away a free kick which Downing again delivers with aplomb to the far post. King gets it back across goal and again the feet fly in but nobody gets on it.

Barmby is replaced by Caleb Folan and then Boateng, to nice applause from all quarters, replaces Fagan. At the point Boateng comes on, City begin to return to the action. The Dutchman’s experience and calmness seems to buck up, if not fully inspire, the rest of the team, a team which has Marney doing his headless chicken act and Geovanni carefully avoiding any involvement whatseoever.

A bit of pressure. Sam Ricketts sends in a deflected cross which Manucho reaches ahead of the Australian gloves of Jones, but the header is powerless and Wheater manages a simple, if vital, clearance off the line. Boateng then finds room at the corner of the box and feeds Marney’s run. The cross is low and only half-cleared and returns to Boateng who shoots over.

City continue to press, leaving the standard gaps at the back which Downing nearly exploits on the counter, eventually cutting in on to his weaker right foot and hitting his shot right at Duke. City get back to the other end and Marney heads just over from Ricketts’ onrushing centre.

Still City try, but they’re having little effect and Jones doesn’t need to make a save. Ashbee feeds Marney who crosses well to the near post where Turner, still up after a set-piece, heads across goal and just beyond the crucial touch Geovanni attempts. Manucho then aims a looping header from Boateng’s cross which lands harmlessly on the roof.

As the last minute approaches, it seems Ciy have one last opportunity when a free kick is earned. The centre backs go forward but Andy Dawson’s inswinger is dealt with and a counter attack is on. Ricketts gets it back to Duke but, typifying his horrific afternoon, the keeper misplaces yet another clearance. Boateng can’t get it under control, Tunay robs him and – of all people – King has the freest of free runs at Duke, casually and easily stroking the ball inside the keeper’s left hand and sealing the points.

That was that. A shocking display at just the wrong time, and 4,000 travelling fans can feel angry that such an important occasion was too much for the players. Brown can talk about cutting out errors as much as he likes, but the clean sheet mentality is pointless when you go a goal down after three minutes, and it’s time we started attacking teams again. Goalscoring is going to be as important as goal preventing, and currently we are incapable of both. This is going to go to the wire, and it’s Sunderland away next week; a game so similar to this, one would hope City will have at least learned how not to perform in a Premier League relegation six-pointer and will be able to put it right. If not, then it's hard to imagine the Tigers going anywhere but down.

Middlesbrough: Jones, McMahon, Wheater, Huth, Taylor, Bates, Aliadiere (Emnes 90), Downing, Sanli, Alves (Adam Johnson 77), King. Subs not used: Turnbull, Hoyte, Shawky, Riggott, Walker.

Hull City: Duke, Ricketts, Zayatte, Turner, Dawson, Fagan (Boateng 71), Mendy (Marney 46), Ashbee, Barmby (Folan 62), Geovanni, Manucho. Subs not used: Myhill, Halmosi, Featherstone, Kilbane.