THERE was no Gazza on view at the Riverside stadium. Nor was there any joy for the local sides in the JD Sports Cup. Empoli, unfancied but excellent, will now contest today's final against Benfica after deservedly beating Boro with a goal 10 minutes from time from the midfielder Fabio Artico.
The question in Middlesbrough before this game was "Who are Empoli?" It didn't take long to find out. Empoli, a replacement for Fiorentina, is an industrial city in Tuscany on the River Arno between Florence and Pisa and it has produced a slick team indeed, one which has risen from Serie C (Italy's Third Division) to Serie A in two years and on the evidence here yesterday it was not hard to see why.
They are a sweet, slickly organised squad who embarrassed the Middlesbrough team severely in the first half and reduced the small gathering of home supporters to silence.
Empoli's team contains no big names or high-priced stars but their harmony was impressive, with the long-haired Claudio Bonomi at the heart of most of their good work. The Italians were disappointing only in their tendency to roll over extravagantly, especially the midfielder Giorgio Lucenti, when fouled. Old habits die hard it seems, even on occasions like this.
The confidence in their side was shown early on by the casually skilful fashion in which the goalkeeper Matteo Sereni made a one-handed catch of Andy Townsend's cross. Middlesbrough were looking no more impressive in this event than Newcastle had done earlier and their three-man defence was under regular threat as the fleet Empoli attackers bore down on them with their neat passing. One great move deserved better than the weak shot delivered by Vincenzo Palumbo which permitted Mark Schwarzer to retrieve the ball at leisure. A couple of minutes later the same player did considerably better with a cross-shot which flew just wide. Vladimir Kinder's forays down the left were the main source of home attacks and once he got in a good centre, only for Mikkel Beck and Alan Moore to get in each other's way.
Middlesbrough had their first good chance after half an hour when a right- wing corner bounced to Beck in space, but his shot flew just past Sereni's left-hand post. That apart, the home team did not look likely to get themselves into a winning position and one Kinder free-kick was so off target that it rolled out for a throw-in.
Empoli came close to going in front just before half-time when the lively Palumbo bore down on goal, only for his fierce drive to be blocked by Steve Vickers.
Paul Merson's introduction after half-time in place of Phil Stamp brought a cheer from the home contingent and the England man was soon in the picture, taking a pass from Beck and getting to the by-line before putting over a low, dangerous cross which was unceremoniously booted away by Bonomi.
Middlesbrough made more of a match of it in the second half, thanks to Merson's involvement, but the close control and excellent first touch of Empoli ensured they remained much the better team and when Bonomi took a flying pass from the substitute Carmine Esposito on his chest he spoiled a great move by shooting over. The best chance of the match then fell to Beck, who's attempt from close-in was diverted over the bar by the boot of a desperate defender. Then Merson's fine ball sent Moore away for a cross which the substitute Anthony Ormerod headed powerfully for goal, only for Sereni to save at full stretch.
Sereni made an even better stop, soaring high to his left to deny Moore's fine header a goal it merited. But the crucial strike when it came was at the other end 10 minutes from time. As the small crowd of Newcastle supporters gathered behind that net exulted, Empoli grabbed the goal their class had demanded. It came when Esposito drew Schwarzer off his line and tried to go round him. Though the Italian fell over in the attempt, the ball broke loose to Fabio Artico who drove in a left-foot shot.
Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Schwarzer; Kinder, Vickers, Gavin; Stockdale, Summberbell, Stamp (Merson, h-t), Campbell (Ormerod 51), Townsend; Beck, Moore (Ricard 77).
Empoli (4-4-2): Sereni; Fusco, Baldini, Bianconi (Dei, h-t), Tonetto; Pane, Lucenti (Roberto Cappellini 74), Artico, Bonomi; Palumbo (Esposito, h-t), Carparelli (Binho 51)..
Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).Reuse content