Football: Boro left out in the cold

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Derby County 2 Middlesbrough 1

In conditions that would have had any Brazilian yearning for home, Derby penned a few more depressing lines in the sorry saga this season has become for Bryan Robson's Middlesbrough.

There was no Emerson, whose appearance was precluded by suspension, regardless of the uncertainty over his future, but even in the committed presence of Juninho and Fabrizio Ravanelli, Middlesbrough were second best for too long to a well-drilled Derby side, for whom Ashley Ward, up front, and Paul McGrath, at the back, were outstanding.

If Robson is worried about Emerson, with whom he held talks over the weekend about the midfield player's problems with life on Wearside, his concerns over the rest of his expensive team cannot be far behind.

After an encouraging start while the summer sun was still on their backs, Middlesbrough have declined as they did last season. They have not won in the Premiership since September. Although some of their football yesterday reflected the quality of their better players, most of it came after Derby had established a 2-0 lead.

To recover from that position was always an onerous task, particularly with the veteran McGrath in such majestic form. Both Ravanelli and Mikkel Beck hit the woodwork, either side of the Italian's 14th goal of the season, but despite laying siege to Derby's goal in the closing minutes, Middlesbrough ultimately paid the price for their earlier shortcomings.

Again, they were exposed as alarmingly porous in defence, undone twice by low crosses. Much as they were claiming injustice over two penalty appeals and Derby's second goal, by defending their line so inefficiently they handed Derby a chance that was too good to give away.

The home side went ahead after 14 minutes, a goal fashioned on the right flank by Christian Dailly and Ashley Ward, the latter pulling back a ball that Neil Cox failed to clear. Aljosa Asanovic, another impressive Derby performer, appeared to trip over his feet at first but recovered to drill a shot under Gary Walsh's body.

Heavy rain, driven by an icy wind, made conditions particularly unpleasant, but there was no evidence that Juninho's heart is not entirely in place. Ravanelli, the subject of renewed speculation linking him with Manchester United, appeared equally in harmony with Middlesbrough's cause. But just as the visiting side settled to the task of fighting back, they found themselves two down. Asanovic drove in an awkward free-kick from the left and Steve Vickers, under pressure from Ward, knocked the ball over his own line.

But if Middlesbrough were upset by referee Paul Durkin's leniency on that occasion, they were livid when, inside 60 seconds, he rejected penalty claims by Juninho and Beck.

Ravanelli then volleyed against the bar from Craig Hignett's chip and with 17 minutes left scored the goal that threw the outcome into the balance, heading past Russell Hoult after Juninho's clever pass had allowed Curtis Fleming to cross from the left. Beck then drove against a post but time was on Derby's side.

Derby County (3-4-1-2): Hoult; Yates, McGrath, Rowett; Laursen, Dailly (Carsley, 78), Flynn, C Powell; Asanovic (Simpson, 84); Sturridge (Willems, 78), Ward. Substitutes not used: Simpson, Carbon, Taylor (gk).

Middlesbrough (4-3-1-2): Walsh; Cox, Vickers, Whyte, Fleming; Hignett, Mustoe, Moore (Summerbell, 75); Juninho; Ravanelli, Beck. Substitutes not used: Whelan, Fjortoft, Campbell, Summerbell, Roberts (gk).

Referee: P Durkin (Portland).

Bookings: Derby: Asanovic. Middlesbrough: Juninho, Moore.

Man of the match: McGrath. Attendance: 17,350.