Football: Ricard braces Wimbledon for hard times

Wimbledon 2 Middlesbrough 3
WIMBLEDON STAYED up last season thanks to an early burst of form that meant they were safe from relegation for virtually half the campaign, a run that gained extra significance as they barely earned any points as the season neared its conclusion. However, on the strength of this feeble defeat against a lively but rarely inspired Middlesbrough, they will need to quickly rediscover that early-season zest, or else they will be struggling in the relegation zone far too early for their comfort.

Wimbledon's opening day win against Watford had already exposed a creaking door at the back that was ripped off its hinges in this game by goals from Hamilton Ricard and Christian Ziege, and although John Hartson swivelled around his marker from eight yards out to score Wimbledon's second, it was a case too little, too late.

Middlesbrough can boast one of England's more celebrated recent international midfield partnerships, now that Paul Ince has joined forces with Paul Gascoigne, and it was Ince who was on hand to help set up his new team's first goal of the season. Trailing to Carl Cort's 17th-minute goal for the home side, Ince - who was making his debut after his pounds 1m summer signing from Liverpool - forced his way into the penalty area with 23 minutes on the clock, and passed to Ricard, the Colombian then guiding the ball on to Ziege. The German international, another of the Middlesbrough manager Bryan Robson's recent acquisitions, then wasted no time in slotting the ball inside Neil Sullivan's far post to equalise.

Gascoigne had made an energetic and promising start to the game, and it was the former international who showed some of his old charm as he curled in an inch-perfect free-kick to Brian Deane, only for the striker to head straight into Sullivan's arms.

Four minutes after Ziege's goal, the visitors took the lead. After a burst of pace down the right flank, Phil Stamp played a neat one-two with Deane, only to be upended by Alan Kimble, with the referee, Barry Knight - in charge of his first Premiership match - adjudging the foul inside the penalty area. And Ricard, who missed the last penalty he took - in the Copa America for his country - calmly forgot about that and tricked Sullivan into diving the wrong way.

Boro's burst of goals quickly made Wimbledon's opener seem a distant memory. On their first attack of the game, Kenny Cunningham floated a ball into Hartson and the Welsh striker calmly nodded a pass into Cort's path, who dispatched his low shot past Mark Schwarzer to give the Wimbledon manager, Egil Olsen, an encouraging start on his first home match in charge.

Ten minutes after the restart, Wimbledon came close to drawing level thanks to Olsen's primitive long-ball tactics, but when the opportunity came to Marcus Gayle, the Jamaican striker fluffed his lines. A long ball into the penalty area found Hartson, whose header down landed at Gayle's feet only 10 yards out, but he stabbed his effort wide of Schwarzer's goal. And, two minutes later, Gayle again found the goal begging after a swift counter-attack, but despite only having one defender to beat, he blazed his effort over from 18 yards out.

That pair of misses by Gayle looked even more costly with 63 minutes gone, when Ricard extended Middlesbrough's lead and scored his second of the night. It was Gascoigne, from inside his own half, who found Ricard, and the tall striker neatly confused two defenders and the goalkeeper by selling them dummies before driving his shot past Sullivan from 10 yards out to give Boro hope of forgetting their opening-day defeat by Bradford.

Wimbledon (4-4-2): Sullivan; Cunningham, Blackwell, Pedersen, Kimble (Thatcher, 62); Cort, Earle, A Roberts, Hughes (Euell, 68); Hartson, Gayle. Substitutes not used: Leaburn, Jupp, Davis.

Middlesbrough (3-5-2) Schwarzer; Festa, Vickers, Gordon; Stamp, Ince (Mustoe, 77), Gascoigne, Townsend, Ziege (O'Neill h/t); Ricard (Campbell, 89), Deane. Substitutes not used: Maddison, Roberts.

Referee: B Knight (Orpington).