Football: Juninho's genius inspiring Boro revival

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The Independent Online
Juninho believes Middlesbrough can secure Premiership survival and some glory at Wembley by playing the fantasy football that Bryan Robson has spent millions trying to bring to the Riverside.

The 22-year-old Brazilian readily admits that he is again in the sort of form which prompted the Middlesbrough player-manager to pay Sao Paulo pounds 4.75m for his skills almost 18 months ago.

But after capping a performance of pure brilliance by scoring his third goal in four games - and 11th of the season - in the 2-1 victory over Blackburn, Juninho insists that the team that cost around pounds 30m is now ready to give the Teesside fans value for money.

"I am now playing as well as I ever did in Brazil, but I think that is because I have found my best position," said Juninho, who has maintained a golden silence and consistent form while his fellow Brazilian Emerson has produced a catalogue of disappearing acts and the pounds 42,000-a-week Italian, Fabrizio Ravanelli, has complained about his situation in the media.

"But it has not just been me. The whole team has been playing well in the last three months and if we keep playing the same way then we have a great chance of staying up,'' Juninho added.

"There was a time when players would be injured or ill and we would play a different formation in every game.

"When things weren't going well we would concede an early goal and it would be very difficult to get a result.

"Now we are defending well and that helps players like me at the other end to concentrate on creating chances and scoring goals."

It's a theme taken up by Boro's assistant manager, Viv Anderson, who saw his team lift themselves off the foot of the table with their third successive Premiership win at the beginning of a five-day stint that also brings Chelsea and Nottingham Forest to the Riverside.

"Juninho has learnt about the game here and the language,'' Anderson said. "It's all about him getting that experience of England.

"And of course the fact that the players are getting used to him now is another factor. But although Juninho has been playing well, the whole team has been excellent since Christmas and the only slip up was when we played poorly at Sheffield Wednesday.

"Nigel Pearson has come back from injury and Gianluca Festa has settled in very well and that has given is stability at the back."

Juninho broke Rovers' resistance just before the break with a polished finish following an intricate Boro move and set up Ravanelli for his 26th goal of the season on the hour.

Substitute Chris Sutton halved the arrears with 22 minutes still remaining, but with Juninho in command there were no late worries for a near-30,000 crowd.

Middlesbrough's relegation fight could be eased even more if the Football Association quashes the three-point penalty imposed for their no-show at Ewood Park in December when illness and injury left Robson with a decimated squad.

The Boro appeal will be heard next Wednesday and, if George Carmen QC wins the case, then the Riverside legions will be able to start enjoying what, despite the struggle in the Premiership, is the club's most successful season in their 121-year history.

Middlesbrough will compete in their first major Wembley final when they meet Leicester in the Coca-Cola Cup on 6 April - and a Wembley double is on the cards with Second Division Chesterfield standing between them and an appearance in the FA Cup final.

Although Juninho is trying hard to concentrate on Boro's Premiership fortunes, he could not help but hold a fleeting thought about a return to the stadium where he helped Brazil destroy England 3-1 with a brilliant free-kick in the summer of 1995.

"I am looking forward to playing at Wembley again,'' the Brazilian said with a relish that would have sent a shiver through Leicester, who were victims of his South American skills on Saturday.

"I hope we will win, of course, and if we play like we have been doing then we will have a good chance.''

For Blackburn, the only consolation from the game was the return of Sutton, who nudged ahead of Kevin Gallacher as the club's leading scorer with his 12th of the season just 13 minutes after coming off the bench following a four-game absence through injury.