Football: Merson makes class count

Middlesbrough 3 Sunderland 1
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FABRIZIO RAVANELLI hit a hat- trick on his Middlesbrough debut last season. It took Boro's latest Italian, Marco Branca, an hour longer to register his third goal for the Teessiders, but a double strike against Sunderland re-established their claim to the leadership of the First Division.

Well deserved it is, too. Firm at the back, confident in midfield and decisive upfront, Bryan Robson has a blend which will surely take the club straight back into the Premiership. He also has Paul Merson. Quite what Merson is doing, playing at this level, only he knows.

"Different class," Sunderland's manager Peter Reid called him, and in front of nearly 50,000 spectators - a record 30,227 at the Riverside, another 18,000 following the action on the big screen at the Stadium Of Light - the former Gunner taught the Wearsiders a lesson in making possession count.

Sunderland enjoyed roughly two thirds of the play, but ran out of ideas in the final third of the field. As with their Coca-Cola Cup win over Liverpool, four days earlier, Boro were content to defend deep and hit on the break, with Merson initiating the moves for all three goals.

Having given his midfield half an hour to come up with a few solutions of their own, Merson decided it was time to take matters in hand. A storming run from his own half ended with an exquisite reverse pass to Andy Townsend, who sent in Branca for Boro's first.

Niall Quinn should have done better after breaking clear on the stroke of half time, and was then denied by a superb save from the home goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, down by the foot of a post, before Merson set up goal No 2. A glorious gallop down the right sliced open the Sunderland defence, Branca did the rest.

One of the most important Tees-Wear derbies for decades had been settled by the time two Tynesiders made their mark: Alun Armstrong came off the bench to score on his Boro debut, before his one-time Newcastle team-mate Lee Clark belatedly pinched one back in stoppage time for the few remaining Sunderland fans.

"Merson was outstanding - just his usual self," observed Robson, who was equally pleased with the way his new Italian import has slotted in after just five days in the north-east. "If you have players with good football brains, like Merson and Branca, they will knit together."

Dropping such a costly stitch prompted the suggestion that Sunderland, for all their neat team work, lack the individual flair which can tip the balance in tight encounters such as this. It was a failing which cost them their Premier League place last season.

"We were a bit naive," conceded Reid. "The players should learn from that." But will the manager?

Goals: Branca (31) 1-0; Branca (68) 2-0; Armstrong (86) 3-0; Clark (90) 3-1.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Festa, Pearson, Vickers, Kinder; Hignett (Armstrong, 62), Thomas (Beck, 87), Mustoe, Townsend (Fleming, 87); Merson, Branca.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Perez; Makin, Craddock Holloway, Gray; Summerbee, Rae, Clark, Johnston; Quinn, Phillips (Dichio, 72). Substitutes not used: Ord, Ball.

Referee: R Furnandiz (Doncaster).

Booking: Sunderland: Clark.

Man of the match: Merson.

Attendance: 30,227.