Written by Matt Stevenson
The previous two games gave us little to go on for this one. The very good performance versus Swansea (who we could still catch if they continue to be unable to score) was followed up by a no-show in our biggest FA Cup game in a lot of our lifetimes. Playing a team who could go level of points with us (albeit having played a game more) was an incentive. Warnock was trying some mind games saying the pressure was on AFCB, Woodgate responded saying it was on both of us. I’d have preferred JW to have ratcheted it up, saying that losing could have fatally wounded Boro’s play-off hopes.
The team had one change from the Swansea game – Smith in for Stacey, a player I like, but had been off-colour against Southampton. Whether this was because JW prefers Smith, or is trying to show you need to play well to retain the shirt is not known. Kelly had played two games for the under 21s and so was on the bench, leaving Rico to play left-back. This is an area that opponents seem to be targeting, identifying Rico’s positioning/pace and the fact that Danjuma isn’t the best going towards his own goal (one of the best going away from it though, so I’ll take this position).
The game wasn’t particularly excited, we had a chance early on when a stray pass found Danjuma who made his way down the line, found Billing, who teed up Lerma, but he dragged it past the left post. In other games, we had seen the net bulging or a good save, so it was a disappointment. We opened the scoring in the 14th minute and it was a good goal. Billing won a header in the middle of our half, which Solanke controlled well and very nearly put Danjuma through on goal but a defender just got his head to it. The ball looped up and Danjuma flicked it over his shoulder to the onrushing Billing who half-volleyed it into the net from the edge of the area. Two points, first that Billing had sprinted from within his own half to score (which might quieten his many detractors) and two, that the chance appears to be harder than we thought. iFollow didn’t have it as a clear chance, and the xG (more on that later) suggested he should only score 1 in 25.
Five minutes later, was our next good attempt, Danjuma cutting in from the left in trademark fashion but being blocked well by Hall. This was the end of our purple patch as we didn’t create another chance for 45 minutes and Middlesbrough who themselves didn’t create a real chance until the 43rd minute began to get a hold in the game, which for 20 minutes was dull viewing. Just before half-time Hall had a chance, and Bola hit the top of the bar with a looping header from a tight angle, and for those who’d seen AFCB this season, the warning signs were there. We went into the break 1-0 up, looking the better team, but with the tide potentially turning. A mention for the referee, who seemed more inept than biased, but who had some strange decisions, there was a close call when Danjuma was adjudged to have fouled a defender when Danjuma got barged in the back, but the worse one was in the second half, when McNair, pushed out an arm in Stacey’s chest to use this as a springboard to dive over to win a free-kick near his own goal. The ref didn’t affect the result though.
In the second half, Boro weren’t creating good chances, but a stream of quarter-chances was giving them confidence when we were creating nothing. Given our weakness in defending set-pieces, I was fearful we’d let them back into the game. As we did, although not through a dead-ball situation, but through a well-worked move with Watmore cushioning the ball well following a hard low cross from the left, and finding the eye of the needle by avoiding Cook’s lunging foot, Begovic’s outstretched hand and hitting the inside of the post. As Kris and Willo pointed out, ‘You could see it coming’ so certainly wasn’t against the run of play. Three minutes earlier Stanislas had been withdrawn holding his hip to be replaced by Stacey which was on the face of it a defensive change, although Stanislas hadn’t influenced the game much. I think it was a coincidence that the Boro goal came down their left flank rather than Smith and Stacey not having sorted themselves out yet.
The goal sparked the Cherries into life. Stacey broke down the right and then played a ball slightly behind Solanke when further forward would have given him a goal his overall play deserved. Pleasingly, Woodgate was warming up Riquelme, presumably to take off Smith, drop Stacey back and try and win the game when we got a lucky goal. The one-two between Billing and Danjuma was good, but Billing’s cross was poor, Morsy made a complete hash of it though, allowing Lerma a scuffed shot, which deflected off Morsy and into the net. Now it was a case of trying not to throw the game away, and Boro didn’t have a chance thereafter, but there were two moments of alarm. First, without being under pressure, Begovic rolled the ball to Carter-Vickers who was running away from him with a lurking centre-forward. He must have heard a call just in time to flick the ball out to the right-back, but it was a scare we didn’t need. Second, Billing having been booked for a heavy tackle earlier in the game deliberately blocked a quick freekick and couldn’t have overly complained if he had been sent off. It was stupidity, but we got away with it. Riquelme had been told to sit down and may have lost out on appearance money, but Pearson for Wilshere still happened, and a move many of us would have made earlier. The game was settled in the 83rd-minute when Billing won the ball, Stacey flicked it out from the centre midfield position to Solanke, who tricked McNair and lashed one straight at Bettinelli. The keeper palmed it back into the danger area and Solanke reacted quickest to prod the ball home. There was time for Stacey to break free from a Billing pass and to put himself forward for a role as a right midfielder, certainly if Stanislas and Brooks aren’t fit enough for Blackburn. That was it, it wasn’t a great game, we didn’t play well, the scoreline probably flattered us, but we had three points, with a lot of other results going our way.
Man of the match against Boro
Begovic 6. Had little to do, but could have dropped a major clanger with the rollout to Carter-Vickers
Smith 7. A solid, if unspectacular, game
Cook 8. Held the defence together and left Boro with few chances
Carter-Vickers 8 (MOTM). See Cook, was very good apart from one fancy turn where he was caught out, impressed and one I hope we get on a permanent deal
Rico 6. Looked suspect near the end of the first half, but steadied the ship.
Wilshere 5. Didn’t really influence the game. Produced a sublime bit of skill in the first half to turn away from a marker, but these things rarely win games
Lerma 7. A typical Jeff performance
Stanislas 5. May have been playing with an injury, but wasn’t at the races. Appears to be removed from ‘flag-kick’ duties.
Billing 8. Would have been my MOTM, apart from the huge risk he took in blocking a free-kick, if we had good down to 10 men, the game could have been lost, and Phil Bill would have gone from hero to zero
Danjuma 8. Must have enjoyed not being doubled up against and was a major threat, quick-thinking ad skilful to put Billing through for the opener.
Solanke 8. Close to MOTM for a tireless display battling on his own for long periods, good work for the opener in almost releasing Danjuma, deserved his goal and would have had another good chance if Stacey’s cross had been further forward.
Stacey 7. Good cameo, we are lucky to have two good right-backs and the option of playing Stacey in front of Smith looks attractive too if needs be
Pearson 7. Quietly effective. I like his style and I expect him to replace Wilshere for the Blackburn game.
Long N/A. Was only on for 5 mins, although may have tweaked a calf muscle. Presumably chosen ahead of Surridge as more experienced at game management.
Did enough to win and deservedly so without hitting the heights we can.
We’re still searching for the right balance to the side, in April! Danjuma for me disappeared a bit second half. Meanwhile, we misused a half-fit Stanislas on the right. Why not have Stan on the bench, to replace Danjuma second half? We rarely see the best of either when we try and fit both into the side. Start one and then swap for the other for me. Between Smith, Stacey, Brooks, Riquelme, Anthony even, we have options on the right.
Boro like many sides attacks us on our left knowing whoever we have at LB is likely to be isolated. – Join the conversation, click here.