Deflated Boro focus on survival

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The Independent Online

After Middlesbrough dragged themselves off the field on Wednesday night, the Coca-Cola Cup another dream destroyed, the first thing said as they reached the sad solitude of Hillsborough's dressing-room was "Forget it". One disappointment could not become too important.

Relegation to struggle against, an FA Cup semi-final replay, the season did not cease when Boro lost to Leicester in extra-time, it just made it more difficult. So much to play for, and such a vision of failure grasped on the threshold of achievement. It makes today's match against Sunderland, cup matches notwithstanding, possibly the most important they have played in recent times.

Lose at The Riverside and relegation will become more than a possibility for either side. Add the ingredient of Wear-Tees rivalry and the tension today will be so strong as to be touchable. "It's a massive game for us," Bryan Robson, the Middlesbrough manager, said. "We must lift ourselves for it."

The Sunderland manager, Peter Reid, also tapped the mood. "Bryan is a great mate of mine," he said, "and I was hoping they would win the final. Unfortunately it didn't happen and they will be up for this game. The players and I know how hard it will be.

"We're not playing too badly, we've just forgotten how to win. We've been ahead of Nottingham Forest and Newcastle and had to settle for draws. The spirit is good, we just have to start winning."

It is a sentiment that will be repeated throughout the Premiership on a day when the relegation picture should become less muddied. Not only do Middlesbrough and Sunderland meet but the teams not far above them, Coventry and Southampton, clash at The Dell.

Arguably both have hit their best form of the season, as Southampton have taken eight points from their last four matches while Coventry have won their last two. Both could yet win their annual battle against relegation although defeat today for either, coupled with a decisive result at The Riverside and a win for West Ham against Everton, will plunge the losers into the bottom three.

"The players have done well recently," Graeme Souness, the Southampton manager, said, "but that's all gone and forgotten. We can't afford to relax and think we've done the hard part of the job. Good players put the last match behind them and immediately focus on the task ahead."

West Ham will again be without their inspirational leader, Julian Dicks, when they meet Everton, who appear to have made themselves safe with a draw against Liverpool in midweek. Dicks has a knee injury that will ensures he misses the next two matches and the manager, Harry Redknapp, must choose between Stan Lazaridis and Keith Rowland, both of whom have filled the gap in the last two games.

Nottingham Forest take on Leeds at the City Ground knowing that defeat will put them on the verge of a second relegation in four seasons. They are two points behind Boro having played two games more and three behind Sunderland, West Ham and Southampton. They would love to say "forget it" but that luxury has long since gone.