Football: Charlton fail to bridge the gap

Middlesbrough 2 Charlton Athletic 0
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The Independent Online

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A SEASON is a very long time in football. Less than 12 months ago both clubs were celebrating promotion to the Premiership but now Charlton are staring at the Nationwide - while Middlesbrough are eyeing a European backdoor via the Intertoto Cup.

However, the scoreline of their meeting, which disappointed dreadfully for long stretches, does not reflect the chasm in class between them. Middlesbrough have evolved into a solid, unspectacular side who, in Alan Curbishley's words, are "very well established" in the top flight. However, according to Bryan Robson, they are pounds 30m of talent shy of challenging seriously for major honours. Yet midtable Middlesbrough out-matched the emotional bluster of struggling Charlton in all departments.

Borough's back-line was magisterially marshalled by the 33-year-old Gary Pallister, under whose tutelage the 19-year-old right-back Robbie Stockdale has come on in unflappable leaps and bounds. Pallister made one mistake in his 500th League appearance - allowing Martin Pringle Charlton's only worthy first-half effort - while Stockdale put hardly a foot wrong all game.

By contrast, once Bryan Deane received a wake-up call courtesy of a 19th minute collision with Charlton's goalkeeper Andy Petterson, he and Hamilton Ricard overwhelmed the visitors' defence. Richard Rufus attempted through means both fair and foul to keep them at bay but, when he could only divert Ricard's shot back into the striker's path for the opening goal, Charlton were on their way to defeat.

Ricard himself is something of an enigma. The Colombian appears to have nothing to offer except his cumbersome clumsiness and powerful persistence, but his 34th minute goal was his 15th of the season, putting him on a par with such luminaries as Andy Cole and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and ahead of Robbie Fowler. Plus his lovely-lay-off created Robbie Mustoe's second goal, and any number of nod-ons could have been finished by Deane.

In midfield the battle of the England veterans was comprehensibly won by Middlesbrough. John Barnes, making his second start for Charlton after his free transfer from Newcastle, might have lasted the full 90 minutes and he might have looked the neater with his timid, sideways short passes, but Paul Gascoigne was always the more likely to penetrate. Both old-timers allowed themselves to be dispossessed in dangerous positions - Barnes' lack of strength proved his undoing in a tussle with Ricard whereas Gascoigne's desire to beat Pringle for the third time in as many moments caused his downfall - but Gazza was ahead on points following his 12th minute burst from the half-way line. His more potent delivery of freekicks had him proclaimed as the outright winner long before his 74th-minute substitution.

It left Robson concentrating on where to spend his pounds 30m. His three remaining home games - Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United - plus a little local matter at St James' Park will give him a clue.

"This is the first time since I have been manager here that I have known which division I'd be playing in next season with more than three games to go," he said. "It allows me to judge the lads against the three best teams in the country and see what we have got to do before next season."

Curbishley, though, was clutching as straws. "If we can stay up, I think everyone in football will be happy because the game needs clubs like us to do well", he said. "The gap is so wide but if we can do it it will be a big incentive for the Ipswiches and Bradfords." It is big - and so was the gap between the two sides here.

Goals: Ricard 34 (1-0); Mustoe 60 (2-0).

Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Schwarzer; Stockdale, Cooper, Pallister, Festa, Gordon; Mustoe, Gascoigne (Maddison, 75), Townsend; Deane (O'Neill, 68), Ricard (Armstrong, 75). Substitutes not used: Vickers, Beresford (gk).

Charlton Athletic (4-4-2): Petterson; Mills, Rufus, Tiler, Powell; Stuart, Barnes, Kinsella (K Jones, 81), Bowen (Brown, 67); Pringle, Hunt (S Jones,67). Substitutes not used: Youds, Salmon (gk).

Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield). Booking: Charlton: Mills.

Man of the match: Ricard.

Attendance: 34,529.