Football: Ravanelli saves day

Middlesbrough 2 Festa 80, Ravanelli 90 Charlton Athletic 1 Jones 8 Attendance: 29,414
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The Independent Online
Middlesbrough's might fallen giants were supposed to be head and shoulders above the rest of Division One but only a last-minute winner enabled them to poke their noses in front of humble Charlton.

Before the kick-off "Merse is magic" balloons were released in deference to the new hero Paul Merson. But there was not time to burst them all before Middlesbrough themselves were deflated. In the third minute, Vladimir Kinder cleared Steve Brown's header off the line; in the sixth minute, a delightful touch from Clive Mendonca again fooled Middlesbrough's defence for John Robinson to shoot and then in the ninth minute Charlton went ahead. Keith Jones lobbed a high ball from the halfway line and as Nigel Pearson hung around hopefully for an offside decision which never came, Steve Jones scampered into the space behind him. He coolly drew the keeper, Ben Roberts, and scored his first goal since signing from West Ham last season.

For the Middlesbrough fans it was the worst possible beginning to the new season which a few minutes earlier could not start too soon. The new season offered the chance to erase the painful memories of last season's triple whammy: two Cup final defeats and relegation from the land of milk and honey by the Football Association's cruel deduction of points.

In the three months since their ill-fated trip to Wembley, nearly 29,000 had lapped up season tickets as if there were no yesterday, putting them behind only Manchester United and Newcastle in the league of fanaticism.

Both Middlesbrough and Charlton fielded their record signings, but as Mendonca came from Grimsby he cost just a 10th of Fabrizio Ravanelli's pounds 7m from Juventus. Yet it was the former Mariner who showed all the early continental flair. A delightful pass inside opened a shooting chance for Keith Jones in the 19th minute and a gorgeous drag back and turn a minute later allowed him to fire a shot that was too hot for Roberts to handle.

Merson's passing proved as accurate as the pre-match parachutists' landing. Only one in four of them dropped on to the centre spot as intended and only one of the former Arsenal player's through balls reached its intended recipient. He embarked on one trademark run, sprinting with the ball tied to his boot laces, but foundered on Richard Rufus, the rock at the heart of Charlton's defence.

That rock stood resolute until the ineffectual Mikkel Beck was substituted 15 minutes from time and Merson joined Ravanelli up front. The increased tempo led to Middlesbrough's first corner of the half in the 79th minute which Gianluca Festa toe-poked home.

As Charlton wilted, Kinder burst down the left a minute into added time and crossed for Ravanelli to put some respectability into the scoreline at least.