Football: Juninho marks England's card

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Kenny Cunningham's nearest and dearest may have spent yesterday hoping that Juninho is not suffering from something contagious. Because, if he is, Cunningham will have caught it on Saturday.

If you had dropped a net on Juninho, any time, anywhere at Selhurst Park, you would have covered the Wimbledon defender as well. During the 1-1 draw he stayed closer to the Brazilian than young lovers on a first date and looked at him more often than any lovestruck teenager would her beau. Even when Juninho made Middlesbrough's equaliser in the 1-1 draw Cunningham was there, making a last depairing tackle, a second too late.

And there's the rub. Cunningham did a pretty good job as a man-marker. He watched Juninho, closed him down whenever he got the ball - often cutting out the pass with an interception. Yet Juninho was still the game's most creative player. He earned Boro a draw, would have secured a win had Mikkel Beck's finishing been better, and managed six shots of his own.

To mark, or not to mark? That, in the week that England prepare to deal with Gianfranco Zola and company, is the question. Zola's impact with Chelsea has been substantially reduced in matches in which he has been man-marked.

"Would I mark him?" Kinnear pondered. "It depends where he is going to play, whether you want to make it 10 v 10. If you're playing against Pele or someone like that do you say: "Go and play how you like?" By marking I lose one of my players but he may not be the most influential player in my team. It would not be as if I was losing [Alan] Shearer.

"We played Manchester City in a relegation battle here [last April] and Kenny marked [Georgi] Kinkladze. We beat them 3-0 and Kinkladze wasn't spotted. They tried to play everything through him and we stopped it at source - two of our goals came from Kenny getting the ball off him."

So England should mark Zola. Or should they? Perhaps Wimbledon's experiences with Eric Cantona and Manchester United are more relevant.

"When we play Cantona we always say: `Who's picking him up?' No-one has got a tackle in. He's pulled off at an angle, he's playing Giggsy in or someone else. Knowing that you think: `Let's try and stop him because everything goes through him' but they have so many others to take care of. And he's more crafty, he doesn't run with the ball like Juninho does.

Zola is something of a mixture of Cantona and Juninho, and he is going to have plenty of good players around him. "If I know the key to their success is Zola and I mark him, then I am one-up already," said Kinnear. "Of course, it doesn't always work out that way. You don't know what these good players can do."

Indeed, as Bryan Robson noted of Juninho, "anyone who marks him has to be quick and fit. He gets marked almost every match but not many players can stay with him throughout."

Cunningham, like his team-mates, tired towards the end as the effect of two visits to Old Trafford in the previous seven days was felt.

His task was also made harder by Middlesbrough's second-half improvement. In the first half they foolishly tried to hit Juninho with long-balls. This was because the Wimbledon defence, with only Beck to mark, had pushed the full-backs into midfield thereby squeezing Boro for space. Juninho thus kept wandering wide to find it making it easier for Cunningham to marginalise him.

In the second period Boro pushed Phil Stamp and Alan Moore wide and forward, creating space in midfield which Juninho came in to exploit. Now they passed short, working quick one-twos. As the movement became more varied Cunningham's task became more difficult, he might pick up Juninho when the ball was first played in but, a one-two, or a flick and spin later, he was being torn between following the Brazilian - if he could - or picking up another threat.

So it happened with the goal. Juninho played a one-two with Stamp round Alan Kimble, ran at Cunningham, played another with Beck to get behind him and, as Cunningham tackled, rolled a cross-shot past Neil Sullivan which Robbie Mustoe tapped in. For once even the excellent Chris Perry was not on hand to intercept. That levelled Neil Cox's own goal. The defender diverted Marcus Gayle's fierce low cross into goal as he tried to prevent it reaching Efan Ekoku.

Wimbledon appeared winners then, with Middlesbrough looking like a side unfamiliar with each other in defence and attack. Slowly, however, Ben Roberts, a promising youth product, regained his composure in goal and Emerson stopped pursuing petty vendettas in midfield. By the end Juninho was screaming at the goalkeepr to kick the ball forward, his hand pointing at imaginary watch.

By this stage Boro looked a team instead of a polygot collection of stars and serfs. As Robson said, if they maintain that application they will stay up.

So they should, given the investment. Add the suspended Fabrizio Ravanelli and Boro's XI cost pounds 20.6m. Wimbledon, including the absent Oyvind Leonhardsen, have change from pounds 3m. This was their 39th point, Boro's 22nd (before the FA's three-point deduction). Value for money?

Leonhardsen, incidentally, was being rested, his team, said Kinnear, "are knackered", being "'victims of their own success". Middlesbrough would love the problem.

Goals: Cox og (21) 1-0; Mustoe (74) 1-1.

Wimbledon (4-1-3-2): Sullivan; Jupp, Perry, Blackwell, Kimble; Cunningham; Ardley (Fear, 69), Jones, Earle; Ekoku (Holdsworth, 59) Gayle (Goodman, 85). Substitutes not used: McAllister, Murphy (gk).

Middlesbrough (4-4-1-1): Roberts; Cox, Festa, Vickers, Fleming; Stamp, Mustoe, Emerson, Moore; Juninho; Beck. Substitutes not used: Freestone, Blackmore, Kinder, Whyte, Walsh (gk).

Referee: G Barber (Woking).

Bookings: Middlesbrough: Festa, Moore, Emerson.

Man of the match: Perry.

Attendance: 15,046.