Football: Juninho sparks Boro

Wimbledon 1 Cox og 22 Middlesbrough 1 Mustoe 75 Attendance: 15,046
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The Independent Online
Expensively assembled but still bottom of the Premiership - only if Middlesbrough win their match in hand against the FA this month will things look rosier for them. They will surely, however, draw strength from yesterday's performance at Selhurst Park, one that almost out-Wimbledoned a fading Wimbledon.

The visitors conceded an own goal and spurned a penalty opportunity but, delving deeply, they finally found an equaliser and, equally important for a spring of relegation resistance, the precious resource of resilience. The Middlesbrough manager, Bryan Robson, said: "If they show that commitment and passion there will be no problems. But they have got to do it week in, week out."

None worked harder or more effectively than Juninho, the little Brazilian with the biggest of hearts. For most of the first half he rarely escaped his marker, Kenny Cunningham, but as he persevered and found his feet so did Boro. Robson noted: "He has great fitness, that's why he always comes on strong late on."

With a series of darting runs and perceptive passes, Juninho illustrated, too, that Middlesbrough have the quality to survive, whether or not the docking of three points for failing to fulfil their fixture at Blackburn stands. All this was without their suspended leading scorer, Fabrizio Ravanelli.

For 45 minutes it looked, though, as if Wimbledon would revive their admittedly fanciful title hopes, after three defeats in their previous five matches. Middlesbrough's finishing was rushed and comprised only snatched, long-range shots which were comfortably held by Neil Sullivan in the home goal. Defensively, the visitors looked vulnerable to Wimbledon's power play, still evident despite a greater variety to it these days.

It came as little surprise when Wimbledon took the lead. Marcus Gayle, who might have had an early penalty when brought down by Boro's 21-year- old goalkeeper Ben Roberts - although the striker was heading away from goal at the time - received the ball wide on the left and his low, driven cross cannoned off Neil Cox into his own net. Gayle also forced Roberts into a good save from a curling, 25-yard free-kick.

But Middlesbrough, after surviving to the interval only a goal adrift, emerged for the second half with new vigour, with Emerson beginning to drive his way through Robbie Earle and Vinnie Jones in midfield.

Phil Stamp and Juninho were both just wide with low drives and an equaliser should have arrived when Emerson stepped up to take a penalty kick after Earle was judged to have handled Stamp's cross. But his kick, though directed well enough towards Sullivan's left corner, lacked power and the goalkeeper grabbed it gratefully.

However, the greater the adversity, the bigger Juninho's appetite. With Cunningham now trailing, he played a one-two with Mikkel Beck, accelerated through the home defence and clipped a shot past Sullivan along the goalline that left Robbie Mustoe with the simple task of touching home.

Joe Kinnear, the Wimbledon manager, lamenting five matches in 14 days, said: "Middlesbrough were fresher than us and desperate for their lives." The Dons fight on in the Coca-Cola Cup semi-final and in the FA Cup, with the next instalment against Manchester United on Tuesday, but their championship challenge is evaporating.

The high-tempo, high- pressure game, coupled with a lack of strength in depth due to slimmer resources than most, has taken its toll, as it always would in the second half of the season. Wimbledon may still have silverware in them somewhere, possibly at Middlesbrough's expense in the Coca-Cola Cup final at Wembley next month; certainly Middlesbrough have survival in them.