Football: Juninho unable to save Middlesbrough

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The Independent Online
A lament for Middlesbrough. Their enterprise was undermined so frequently by defensive shortcomings that the last act of their troubled Premiership season brought only the calamity of relegation.

What now for the club who lured Juninho, Ravanelli and Emerson to the Riverside Stadium? Who can fancy them against Chelsea in next Saturday's FA Cup final? Will that be the last game in Middlesbrough's colours for their foreign contingent?

Another question, a serious one this, is whether Middlesbrough will attempt to overturn legally the critical deduction of three points for failing to fulfil a fixture at Blackburn last December.

"This is a knockback we didn't expect," said Middlesbrough's chairman, Steve Gibson. "Now we've got to plan for next season."

There was something, too, about his club's plight being the result of a decision taken behind closed doors by men in grey suits so perhaps all is not yet settled but an irrefutable proof is that the technical gap between Middlesbrough's best men and most of the rest always threatened to be their undoing.

It was there at Elland Road in Juninho's gesticulated frustration at the flaws in others which persuaded him on the day to attempt too much individually.

At the end the little Brazilian looked distraught, the last Middlesbrough player to rise from the floor, wiping away tears with his shirt.

One by one they went to him, the Middlesbrough manager, Bryan Robson, the club's coach, Viv Anderson, players from both teams, but Juninho's disappointment was beyond consolation. How this compared with the attitude of his compatriot Emerson who went straight to the dressing-room clearly upset about being withdrawn from the action in the second half.

Here were the extremes that have so often raised doubts about Middlesbrough's foreign acquisitions, Emerson's form and unsettlement early in the season contributing to their problems.

In all, too many matches were lost through muddled defending before the return of Nigel Pearson to centre-back after injury.

Elland Road was hardly the place to be seeking survival. Under George Graham's leadership Leeds had assembled a niggardly defence that went into this game with nine clean sheets to their credit.

The man who looked most likely to bring some hope to the travelling Middlesbrough supporters was, predictably, Juninho. If he did attempt too much on his own there was always a quality about his work, the gifts of imagination and enterprise that no other player on the field went close to matching.

Even so it was quickly evident that Middlesbrough would need to pay serious attention to their defence if they were to have a chance of remaining in the top flight. A mistake by Clayton Blackmore let in one of Graham's recent signing, Derek Lilley and it took a smart rush from Ben Roberts to prevent the Scot from putting Leeds ahead.

The anxiety in Middlesbrough's play showed in careless passing and their failure to make the best of openings created by Juninho, especially when Mikkel Beck was let down by his touch when put through just inside the penalty area.

With Emerson always providing Leeds with opportunities to regain the ball from him by making one manoeuvre too many there was little cohesion about Middlesbrough in midfield and their threats were sporadic.

On the touchline stood Ravenelli, the Italian whose goals played such a big part in taking Middlesbrough to two cup finals but kept out from the most important match of all by injury.

Had Ravenelli been there to provide Juninho with opportunities for his passes it might have been a different story because Leeds, for all their solidity in defence, are no attacking force.

With 15 minutes left it looked for a moment that the issue had been settled by Lilley's first goal for Leeds but an offside decision kept Middlesbrough's hopes alive - but only for two minutes. Rodney Wallace, who had replaced Ian Rush, outpaced the defence before finding Deane with a low cross that he tucked into the far corner.

Not over yet. Middlesbrough sent Pearson forward hoping that his height and strength could manufacture something out of nothing. And with 11 minutes left Juninho stole in on the right side of Leeds' defence to equalise.

All or nothing then. Middlesbrough got the ball forward almost frantically and one low cross went, agonisingly for them, straight through a crowded goalmouth beyond the lunges of three attackers.

Then, time had run out on them.

Premiership honours

Champions (qualify for Champions' League) Manchester United

Runners-up (win place in European Cup qualifying round)

Newcastle United

Qualify for Uefa Cup Liverpool, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Leicester City (as Coca-Cola Cup winners)

Qualify for European Cup-Winners' Cup Chelsea or Middlesbrough

Relegated Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest

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