'The Corridor of Uncertainty'

Month: December, 2013

Middlesbrough 1 Burnley 0

I’ll start by being completely honest – when I arrived at the stadium and heard the team Karanka had selected to start this one, I wasn’t best pleased. To leave out Ben Gibson and Curtis Main after they’d both put in such good performances at Millwall on Saturday evening seemed incredibly harsh on the two young lads but, given that we’ve emerged from a game against a team that went into proceedings at the top of the table with three points and another clean-sheet in the bag, El Gaffer has been completely vindicated in making those changes and left me feeling slightly foolish for questioning his wisdom.

It was clear from the way we started the game that we were well and truly up for this one, which hasn’t always been the case at the Riverside this season, and it made for a really enjoyable opening period. We got into them, we pressed them, we played with a strong sense of purpose, we moved them around the pitch almost at will at times and we showed absolutely no fear in going about our business. Some of the football we played was a pleasure to watch; Emmanuel Ledesma was a constant threat down the right-hand side, cutting in onto his stronger left foot to thread a pass through or have a pop at goal on numerous occasions. Magic Marvin strolled around in the way that only Magic Marvin can, holding it up well and occupying enough of the opposition to allow our other attacking lads to do their stuff in threatening areas. Adomah was a nuisance for us down the left as their right-back, Kieran Trippier, grew to realis it made little difference whether he showed him the inside or the outside because Adomah would beat him regardless. Lukas Jutkiewicz gave us a great outlet also, winning most of the battles with their centre-halves before tiring late in the second-half.

The first half-an-hour, considering we were playing the league leaders, a team that had only lost two league games prior to their trip to Teesside, was probably the best I’ve seen us play this season. Our passing was very easy-on-the-eye, it was incisive and the speed at which we were knocking it around left the Burnley lads with very little time to prevent us creating plenty of chances; Adomah almost got onto the end of a delightful Ledesma cross, Jutkiewicz almost headed home yet another lovely cross but was about an inch too short to make it count. Ledesma lashed one just wide and went fairly close with a well-struck free-kick. The Argentine also played a sublime pass to set Adomah free down the left – as sterling passes go, this one wouldn’t look out of place alongside Dean Whitehead’s Xavi-esque effort against Bournemouth earlier in the campaign. That’s how good it was. It was absolutely no surprise when we did get our goal, and even less of a surprise that it came from Ledesma again. He was given far too much room, or maybe he made the room for himself, who knows, but he had enough time and space to get his head up and blast one past a hapless Tom Heaton in the Burnley net from well outside the area. It was no more than we deserved and we saw the remainder half out with relative ease, though Shay Given did pull off two fine saves from Burnley headers prior to half-time.

At that stage it was difficult to see how Burnley had got themselves to the league’s summit. Their tactics seemed to be boot it daft and long in the general direction of Sam Vokes, whose massive box-of-Roses-shaped bonce might nod something in the general direction of Danny Ings. Other than that, they seemed to be good at trying to switch the play but getting too much on it and putting it for throw-in after throw-in. Whether they were just having a bad day at the office, as they say, or whether the quality of our performance had taken them by surprise a little bit, it’s difficult to say but I’m going to go with the latter. When they did have it for a few moments, they found every long-ball they played was coming straight back at the them via the unbeatable-in-the-air partnership of Ayala and Woodgate. In all fairness, they’re clearly a well-drilled, well-disciplined and well-oiled outfit but them being top of the league, going into this game at least, just goes to show how fine the line is in this division.

As the second-half started to take shape it was clear that Sean Dyche, a man who always seems to sound like a Sesame Street character on the edge of a nervous breakdown, had been into the collective ear of his team and had them much more ‘at it’ and in our faces. They pushed us back and tried to get at our full-backs, particularly Joszef Varga, but they struggled to create anything of note for the most part. Varga seemed to rise to the challenge and flung himself into tackles and blocks like Jamie Pollock in his pomp and did more than enough to make Michael Kightly, a decent second-tier winger, look crap enough to be unceremoniously hauled off after an hour or so. Karanka sensed the growing danger and swapped Marvin Emnes for Grant Leadbitter to try and shore up the midfield and it definitely made things harder for our opponents. Karanka seems to have a canny knack for making substitutions that have a positive influence on how the game is going and that’s a pretty exciting thing I think. He seems shrewd. Anyway, Burnley pressed and pressed and tried to press some more but it did feel like it would be us who got the next goal, if anyone were going to get it, with Adomah and Ledesma running up and down the flanks and the industrious midfield trio of Whitehead, Smallwood and Leadbitter providing a great shield in front of the back-four. Adomah had a good effort that kissed the bar on it’s way out for a corner, Jutkiewicz turned his man and shot wide from a tight angle and Ledesma forced Heaton into a tidy save from twenty-odd yards out. And Curtis Main, on for the knackered Jutkiewicz, almost got on the end of a Leadbitter cross at the death.

Burnley’s best chance came in the last few minutes when they sneaked in behind George Friend and whipped one over towards the back stick; somehow, though, Dean Marney contrived to stick his header over the bar from just a few yards out with Shay Given stranded(I’ll refrain from using the term ‘No Man’s Land’ I think – it’s for the best). And that was that really; there were a few nerves around as the board went up and showed there was to be five extra minutes played but we saw things out with relative ease. The whistle went and we’d made it two straight wins with successive clean-sheets, with Ledesma and Whitehead and Varga and Main all emerging from the shadows to look like important players for us going into the new year. Whitehead seems to have developed a nice little understanding with the ever-industrious Richie Smallwood and long may that continue. And if Curtis Main can add a goal or two to his game we’ve got a proper little striker on our hands there.

But it’s a collective effort. It’s beginning to feel like Karanka’s ideas are coming to fruition; we look more solid, more professional and more productive with and without the ball. Most importantly, though, we look much more organised. The defence isn’t being pulled around at will any more, we aren’t being carved open time and time again and we’re starting to look less ponderous on the ball than we were prior to Karanka taking over. We’ve started to look like a team that knows what it’s doing, both individually and collectively, and it’s been a while, probably a good twelve months or so, since we’ve looked like that. We’ve got Reading, Bolton and Hull in the FA Cup on the horizon and if we perform in those games like we did in this one then we’ll win all three of them without too much fuss before beating Tottenham in fourth round.

Optimism, eh.

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Millwall 0 Middlesbrough 2

Trudging around New Cross at 2:30 in the afternoon, in the howling wind and pouring rain, I’d started to have some serious reservations about this one. The sense of excitement that’d been building over the course of the two or three days prior was in grave danger of blowing away and being replaced by a sense of crippling self-doubt; we were cold, ever-so-slightly hungry, we were thirsty, it was too wet for a cigarette, my coat wasn’t waterproof. When we did make our way into the Marquis of Granby, a Millwall supporter stood next to me at the bar and talked of how certain it was we were going batter them because “Millwall never win on telly,” apparently. This was going to be one of those ones where the Boro are 3-0 down at half-time and you contemplate going home early, I thought.

We’d made our way down to The New Den in the driving rain and got settled into our place in the stand. And that’s when I noticed there was no Woodgate, no Leadbitter, no Rhys Williams. Steele and Kamara were also unavailable. That’s half a team missing for a big game at Millwall, a game that, even without these awful conditions, is always going to be something of a war. I mean, let’s be honest about this; the first-half of this one was one of the worst games of football you’re ever likely to see. Two teams incapable of completing even the most basic of tasks, such as passing the ball to a man in the same coloured shirt over a distance of, say, two yards. Instead, both teams concentrated on blasting it up into the air, like we were in competition with each other to see who could play the most stupid long-ball of the half. I lost count of the number of times a centre-half from either side(but particularly Mark Beevers for them) just launched it forwards and straight out for a goal-kick. George Friend was doing it too. It was like watching a bunch of lads larking about in the playground at school, taking turns to see which one of them can get it over the school roof. When we did try and pass it nothing really came off for us; Emnes and Main looked fairly lively, Adomah had a couple of chances to get a run on their left-back but seemed to hesitate and see the chance go begging. The lads were their typical selves really; Whitehead made a good tackle or two but then gave the ball straight back to them, we had a couple of chances to push forwards at pace but turned back and laid the ball off to a full-back before partaking in a spell of knocking it sideways for fun. And then launching it in the general direction of Curtis Main. The local brass band appearing during the half-time interval and belting out a few Christmas classics was a very welcome relief.

Then, completely out of the blue at the start of the second-half, something unexpected happened; we had a shot. A real shot at goal, a shot that hit the target and everything. And not only that but it flew past the outstretched hand of tubby shot-stopper David Forde and nestled in the back of the net via a thwack off the post. Unbelievable! We’d waited all night for a shot and then when we do have one it goes straight in. You couldn’t script it, sometimes. We all celebrated and the players celebrated and Ledesma got booked for taking his shirt off(I think) despite having an almost identical shirt on underneath it. It was complete madness all round at that moment in time. After that we kind of sat back and waited to see what Millwall had to offer but they had absolutely nowt. They didn’t even faff on with it, knock it around between themselves for a while and at least try and look like a football team; they just launched it down the channels and out for goal-kicks and throw-ins, they blasted it in the general direction of McDonald and Morison without giving either of them a real chance of getting on the end of anything and they were slipping and sliding around like Nicky Bailey on a frozen pond. It was truly dire to watch.

We had numerous chances to catch them on the break and score a few more goals but we lacked a bit of composure when and where it mattered. Main almost got his bonce on the end of a flick-on from a corner(he was so frustrated to miss his header that he decided to head the post instead. Twice), Ledesma had a couple of chances to thread something through when we had a man over but made the wrong decision, he even had a chance of chipping the ‘keeper at the death but didn’t execute it properly. Emnes and Adomah caused problems with their pace but we weren’t ruthless with it(much to Marvin’s frustration). Emnes produced some fine moments of exceptional close-control, especially in such poor conditions, but we couldn’t make it count for much. Jacob Butterfield came on and ran about a little bit, which was nice, and Richie Smallwood blazed two efforts way off target. We sealed it at the end, the bitterly cold fag-end of proceedings, when we sent Albert Adomah clean through and he rounded Forde with consummate ease and rolled the ball into an empty net to send the Boro faithful relatively wild. And you’d have to say, despite us being far from vintage, that we deserved the win.

But we are going to face much tougher tests than this one. I’ve seen some awful performances this season; Charlton Athletic, Bolton Wanderers, several Boro performances, but Millwall were in a league of their own when it comes to being absolutely crap. It was a battle we’ve done well to see through to the end and take the points from but I’d be very worried if we hadn’t been able to beat a Millwall side as poor as this one. There were a few genuine plus points for us; Ben Gibson dealt with pretty much everything with the minimum of fuss, Curtis Main worked his backside off and chased anything and everything, Varga did himself no harm at all and has probably guaranteed himself the right-back berth for the next four or five games at least, Richie Smallwood worked incredibly hard, George Friend seemed a bit more solid than usual. But I can’t decorate the truth; it was two pretty poor sides playing pretty poor football in very bad conditions. It just so happened we produced some decent moments and made two of those moments count. Which is all that matters at the end of the day, I suppose, and games like this one are what sums this division up really. We had to grind it out and we did just that.

And that was that. We trudged off in the general direction of South Bermondsey station surrounded by angry Millwall supporters, with most of their annoyance and frustration being aimed in the general direction of manager Steve Lomas. The station looked like India in rush hour, only with more Stone Island jackets, and the atmosphere was one of resignation. Well for them it was, anyway. We were too busy trying to contain our delight by deciding which Vietnamese restaurant to go to. Ah, one last thing would be to say that don’t normally bother with player ratings or man of the match stuff but, in this instance, I’ll finish by presenting an imaginary bottle of champagne to Curtis Main and congratulating him on leading from the front, for never giving up on anything and for giving as good as he got against two pretty agricultural centre-halves there. His attitude rubbed off on the rest of the lads and when you are where we are in the league table it’s things like that that will make a difference for us.

Anyway, onwards and upwards for Burnley…