FOOTBALL: Juninho just off key

Blackburn 1 Middlesbrough 0
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The Independent Online
You could almost imagine the cynics sniffing the freezing air and warming themselves on their reservations. "Juninho? Just wait until the cold and a few tackles hit him." Ewood Park on Saturday could not have been better suited.

The wind, fresh from Siberia, was sharp as a blade, the Blackburn players uncompromising and Middlesbrough colleagues around him were falling short of their recent standards.

In a match where Boro were begging for his genius to steal the points, he could not quite deliver. Excellent on the fringes, he did not let the game, in Alfredo Di Stefano's words, flow through him. Tetchy at times, particularly when he swung a foot at David Batty, a trickle came from the boots of beauty, but the torrent was elsewhere.

"It's taking him time to acclimatise to the cold and his team-mates," Bryan Robson, the Middlesbrough manager, said of his pounds 4.75m signing, "but the longer it goes on, the better he is getting. He moved out of a hotel into his house on Friday which will help him settle. In a couple of months we'll see Juninho at 100 per cent."

Ewood Park saw Juninho spluttering like a luxury car with a couple of spent spark plugs, which was unfortunate because a bravura display from him could have turned a game brimming with incident into a classic. Instead of Brazilian wizardry, however, we were treated to quality that a few weeks ago would have been described as British as roast beef.

Alan Shearer is sometimes denigrated as a scoring machine who does little more than bang the ball in the net (some limitation that is). On Saturday, he was superb inside and outside the penalty area, the perfect striker and one who made his ineffectiveness at international level all the more mysterious.

Shearer's 23rd for Blackburn this season was stupendous - a crashing shot from the edge of the area that threatened to set the turf on fire - but he was also an insistent source for Blackburn's attacks that would have yielded more goals against a less obdurate defence than Boro's. Steve Vickers was a colossus, and Nigel Pearson and Derek Whyte only slightly less so, which made it a pity that Whyte should be sent off for two bookable offences.

"Every manager in the Premiership is talking about it this year," Robson said of the rash of dismissals that is running rampant. "They have got to look at the rules. Are we supposed to play without touching each other these days? If so, there's going to be a different game out there."

If Robson was disappointed, Graeme Le Saux was wretched. The Blackburn and England full-back was taken to hospital where he had a broken fibula pinned. He also has a dislocated ankle and will be out for three months. Of all people, it was an attempted challenge on the waif-like Juninho that caused the damage.

Goal: Shearer (41) 1-0.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Kenna, Berg, Hendry, Le Saux (Fenton, 64); Ripley (Coleman, h-t), Bohinen, Sherwood, Batty; Newell, Shearer. Substitute not used: Mimms (gk).

Middlesbrough (5-2-2-1): Walsh; Cox, Pearson, Vickers, Whyte, Fleming; Stamp, Liddle; Barmby, Juninho; Fjortoft (Hendrie, 59). Substitutes not used: Moore, Miller (gk).

Referee: P Danson (Blaby).

Sending-off: Middlesbrough: Whyte.

Bookings: Blackburn Rovers: Sherwood, Hendry. Middlesbrough: Barmby.

Attendance: 27,996.

Man of the match: Shearer.