CHELSEA'S recent run of success continued at Ayresome Park last night when a goalless draw was enough to move them into second place in the Premier League, a point ahead of Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa.
Middlesbrough, who dominated most of the opening half and struck the Chelsea crossbar midway through the second half, may have felt badly done by, but in the end they could have few complaints.
Chelsea attacked the Middlesbrough goal to some purpose late in the game and Dennis Wise and Robert Fleck almost brought them their ninth win in the last 11 matches.
The game was highly competitive but played in a sporting spirit. It was a promising curtain-raiser for the next engagement between the two teams, in the FA Cup third round at Middlesbrough on 3 January.
That there were no goals scored highlighted the quality of the goalkeeping. Kevin Hitchcock, who is facing competition for his place with the signing of the Russian keeper Dmitri Kharin from CSKA Moscow, showed that he will not surrender his position lightly.
Having wrested the job from Dave Beasant, he has no intention of losing it. He gave a superb performance last night, being beaten only once, when Craig Hignett, Middlesbrough's recent signing from Crewe, hit the bar with a cunningly flighted free-kick in the second half.
The free-kick followed a harsh booking for the Chelsea full-back Frank Sinclair, who stopped the Middlesbrough winger, Tommy Wright, with what looked a legitimate challenge. The only other booking was for Jimmy Phillips, the Middlesbrough full-back, who tripped Eddie Newton in full flight.
Chelsea began briskly and their accurate passing and intelligent running off the ball hinted at an early goal. But Middlesbrough soon picked up the tempo. Graeme Le Saux, replacing the suspended Mick Harford, and Fleck found it difficult to shake off Nicky Mohan and Derek Whyte, and with Middlesbrough's midfield players, particularly young Jamie Pollock going in hard, Chelsea were pushed back. Indeed, for much of the half Chelsea were only kept in the game by the confident interventions of Hitchcock.
Andy Townsend relieved the pressure with some superb sweeping passes to the wings, but Wise and Graham Stuart found the Middlesbrough full-backs, Curtis Fleming and Phillips, in sparkling form.
Chelsea came back strongly after the interval and it was the turn of Pears to catch the eye. One of his best saves came from Wise, who chased a long ball from Le Saux almost to the byline before striking an angled drive that was heading for the net until Pears leapt to turn it round the post.
Having survived the scare of Hignett's free-kick, Chelsea pressed forward with renewed vigour. Both Wise and Robert Fleck had chances to win the match, but it would have been an injustice to a lively Middlesbrough side if they had done so.
Chelsea's manager, Ian Porterfield, said: 'I'd give anything to win something with Chelsea. I want success for this club more than anything.'
Of his decision to sign Kharin, he said: 'We are not bringing the Russian in to take Kevin Hitchcock's place. The fact is we need two keepers. Kevin is in charge of the shirt because he is playing so well, and long may it continue. I've got a lot of players trying to get into this team and the Russian will have to join them.
'This is a young side and I've known them for four years and watched them mature and get stronger. It gives me great satisfaction, but we are not going to start shouting about being second for what might be a few hours.'
Middlesbrough: Pears; Fleming, Phillips, Mohan, Whyte, Pollock (Kavanagh, 75), Hendrie, Peake, Wilkinson, Hignett, Wright. Substitutes not used: Proctor, Ironside (gk).
Chelsea: Hitchcock; Hall, Sinclair, Townsend, Lee, Donaghy, Stuart, Fleck, Le Saux, Newton, Wise. Substitutes not used: Burley, Johnsen, Colgan (gk).
Referee: K Barratt (Coventry).
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