Football: Boro suffering from split personality

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The Independent Online
Manchester City 0 Middlesbrough 1

Teams have done the Jekyll and Hyde bit of fighting the drop while going to Wembley before - Brighton, Jimmy Melia, white shoes and all come readily to mind - but Middlesbrough are heading for the ultimate in football craziness: relegation and two cup finals.

Just two matches separate them from both the FA and Coca-Cola Cup finals yet they are propping up the Premiership and are going to require a spirited revival to get out of the relegation places. It is difficult to place them: good or bad, too full of foreigners, or a team learning to amalgamate diverse football cultures.

This bad-tempered FA Cup fifth round tie hardly helped clear the conundrum. Against a struggling First Division side without three ineligible players, they looked ruggedly ordinary for most of the time yet when Brazilian samba and Italian opera did get anywhere near the same notes there were fleeting glimpses of something far better.

Indeed they might have won by three or four goals by the end but they might also have lost 1-0 which about sums them up. "The performances are picking up," Bryan Robson, their manager, said with an eye to the better side of their complex nature. "We are looking like the team I know we can be."

He might have added the word "infuriating", which would put him in the same camp as many of the supporters. They seemed happy enough at the end though, and they would possibly trade relegation for two trips to Wembley. The manager, and the accountants, know better.

It is hard to finance the wages of glamorous imports outside the financial featherbed of the Premiership as Manchester City have found out with Georgi Kinkladze. Juninho, unlike his fellow Brazilian Emerson, has seemed happy on Teesside but would that content survive the First Division? The excitement of the Cup-Winners' Cup soon evaporates at places like Southend and Reading.

This match revolved round the two No 10s. Neither Kinkladze nor Juninho was able to get the space to give us the feast of dribbling we had anticipated but the former's substitution after 64 minutes with a groin injury seemed to announce City's inability to win and it was the Brazilian who got the goal 12 minutes later.

A pretty good one it was, too. As soon as Steve Lomas's shot was blocked at one end the other looked threatened even when Fabrizio Ravanelli's dallying appeared to have lost the attack's momentum. A cross from Curtis Fleming and a dummy from Ravanelli, however, allowed Juninho to arrive unmarked at the far side of the area from where he beat Martyn Margetson at the near post.

"The game went exactly how I expected," Frank Clark, who had just suffered his first defeat as City manager, said. "Very tight. One break was always going to settle it and they got it."

To his credit he resisted making an issue of City's bad break after 44 minutes when Ian Brightwell's "goal" was disallowed by the linesman's flag even though television evidence showed the central defender was onside when Kit Symons headed to him. From where we sat he looked well offside," he said. "We won't make a song and dance about it."

Against that, Boro had a penalty denied them when Mr Jones somehow missed Brightwell's blatant shirt tug on Ravanelli so things evened themselves out as, legend has it, they do in football.

If only Robson could do the same with his team's performances. They face Second Division Stockport County in the first leg of their Coca-Cola Cup semi-final on Wednesday and the FA Cup is becoming the preserve of pygmies. "The Cup is there to be won," Robson said, "but you can't underestimate anyone. Just ask Nottingham Forest and Leeds."

Just as they cannot underestimate the task ahead of them in the Premiership. They face Newcastle at the Riverside on Saturday and if they conform to type they will lose. After all, they beat them in the Coca-Cola Cup earlier in the season.

Goal: Juninho (76) 0-1.

Manchester City (4-1-3-2): Margetson; Crooks, Brightwell, Symons, Ingram; McGoldrick; Summerbee, Lomas, Brown (Beagrie, 62); Kinkladze (Dickov, 64), Rosler. Substitute not used: Dibble (gk).

Middlesbrough (5-4-1): Roberts; Cox, Festa, Vickers, Whyte, Fleming; Juninho, Stamp, Mustoe, Hignett; Ravanelli. Substitutes not used: Beck, Blackmore, Beck (gk).

Bookings: City: Lomas, Brown; Middlesborough: Mustoe, Festa, Stamp.

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough)

Man of the match: Brightwell.

Attendance: 30,462.