Football: Ravanelli shows Boro his bottle

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Middlesbrough 3 Aston Villa 2

Like chimes ringing out the seconds on a condemned man, the results were read out at the Riverside. Southampton, Sunderland, West Ham and the chant of "Boro's staying up" fell silent. From euphoria to apprehension, the mood changed like someone had turned a tap off.

Boro staying up? With three away matches in the next seven days even Sunderland have a better chance, but at least one thing is going in their favour. Luck has not always worn a red shirt this season -yet, if this match is anything to go by, it is now decked up in all the Riverside regalia it can afford.

Traditionally teams at the bottom suffer all the calamities that football can throw at them. Refereeing decisions go the other way, shots are deflected fractions wide and vital players are either sent off or injured. It duly happened on Saturday although someone up there got the team wrong. Villa were buried in misfortune.

Take the referee, for example. Mr Alcock was correct to award the decisive penalty 10 seconds from the end when Gareth Farrelly bowled Craig Hignett over but why he ignored Dwight Yorke having his shirt all but torn off his back in the opposite area when it happened immediately in front of him was a mystery.

Every 50-50 decision went Boro's way while a lot of 10-90s seemed to head in that direction too. At the end Gareth Southgate had to be restrained by stewards and visiting staff from joining Steve Staunton in being sent off while another (un-named) official was involved in a scuffle in the tunnel. "I've been made aware of an incident," Doug Ellis, the Villa chairman, said afterwards, "and the appropriate action has been taken."

Staunton, too, might wonder why his two bookable offences led to dismissal when Fabrizio Ravanelli was involved in three scuffles during the match and had to be taken into the referee's room at half-time to be warned for inciting the Villa crowd. Somehow the Italian escaped without even a caution.

Amid all this controversy an exciting, unruly match took place. For 45 minutes Boro were terrific, sweeping Villa aside with Hignett's passes, Juninho's runs and Ravanelli's craft. Allied to that, Mark Bosnich was having one of those days when he looks like the most unreliable goalkeeper in the Premiership.

After 19 minutes he raced out to the corner of his area to make a slight chance into a bountiful one, Ravanelli flicking the ball past him. You learn by your mistakes, they say, but Bosnich obviously was not listening because 13 minutes later he did the identical thing, selling himself so that Mikkel Beck could go round him and score from a narrow angle.

That should have been that but the Boro of the first half went home and a nervy, clueless lot replaced them at the interval. "You tell teams how to defend a lead," Bryan Robson, their manager, despaired, "and they produce that. I think we thought if we just got people behind the ball that would be enough but it's not in this game."

Villa pushed Staunton from sweeper to midfield and if there had been any justice they would have got at least a point courtesy of Ugo Ehiogu and Savo Milosevic's goals. Instead Ravanelli's injury-time penalty dented their hopes of qualifying for Europe.

"He showed a lot of bottle to stand up and take the kick when you know what hinged on it," Robson said. "OK, mathematically we could have done it but, with the other results today, if he had missed it probably would have put us down. He took the responsibility himself.

"People have criticised Ravanelli but he's scored 31 goals this season. He's answered those critics."

Whether Middlesbrough have answered those people who wonder why a team brimming with talent has performed so lamely in the League is less sure.

On the way out of the Riverside a sign has been placed pointing the way to the FA Cup final. "Wembley, 256 miles" it reads. No one, yet, has been so confident to erect a route to Premiership safety.

Goals: Ravanelli (19) 1-0; Beck (32) 2-0; Ehiogu (58) 2-1; Milosevic (75) 2-2; Ravanelli (90, pen) 3-2.

Middlesbrough (4-3-1-2): Roberts; Fleming, Pearson, Festa, Blackmore; Hignett, Emerson, Mustoe; Juninho; Ravanelli, Beck (Stamp, 63). Substitutes not used: Cox, Vickers, Whyte, Freestone.

Aston Villa (3-4-1-2): Bosnich (Oakes, 76); Ehiogu, Staunton, Southgate; Nelson, Taylor, Townsend, Wright; Curcic (Joachim, 57); Yorke, Milosevic (Farrelly, 85). Substitutes not used: Scimeca, Hughes.

Bookings: Middlesbrough Fleming, Juninho; Aston Villa Taylor, Townsend. Sending-off: Villa Staunton.

Referee: P Alcock (Redhill).

Man of the match: Townsend. Attendance: 30,074.