Football: Robson fears the drop zone

Sheffield Wednesday 3 Middlesbrough 1
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The Independent Online
WHEN THE Middlesbrough team bus pulled out of Old Trafford the Saturday before Christmas, Bryan Robson was plotting a course for Europe. As the Boro party left Hillsborough on Saturday night, trips to Swindon and Stockport were a more likely prospect for next season than sojourns in the San Siro and the original Stadium of Light.

The wheels have fallen off the Boro bandwagon with such a vengeance that Robson and his team might not make it up the A19 to Sunderland's Stadium of Light. Another point-less afternoon has narrowed their seasonal horizons from the beckoning promise of European football to the harsh reality of a domestic survival battle.

Of their nine Premiership matches since they held out for their famous victory against Manchester United, Middlesbrough have lost six and drawn three. Their free-fall has taken them to within seven points of the drop zone.

"Relegation is a possibility," Robson conceded. "We still have points in hand but we've got two home games now and we've got to turn our season around in them."

Certainly, Middlesbrough cannot afford to miss their scheduled trip to Blackburn this time. By the time they are due at Ewood, on 3 April, their worried supporters hope Robson's Boro boys will be looking more like the tightly knit team that undid Manchester United ten weeks ago and less like the loose collection of slackers who allowed Sheffield Wednesday to assume control on Saturday.

Even when the Owls rested back on their perch, after Andy Booth had finished off a strolling 11-minute move through Boro's barn door defence, the Teessiders lacked the collective clout to take any advantage.

Mikkel Beck was guilty of missing one of the sitters of the season and Gary Pallister headed against Kevin Pressman's crossbar.

For the most part, though, Middlesbrough were a magnified image of their cause celebre of a central midfielder: off the pace and searching in vain for inspiration.

They did improve when Paul Gascoigne made way for Neil Maddison at half- time, Robson deciding not to risk his red-faced pivot drawing a red card after being booked for the 12th time this season.

In truth, though, Sheffield Wednesday won with their foot off the pedal, Danny Sonner and Booth netting headers either side of Robbie Mustoe's 77th-minute consolation.

Wednesday are only two points better off than Middlesbrough, but they have a game in hand and the momentum of a winning roll, having taken a maximum return from their three Premiership fixtures in February.

They also have a burgeoning department of creativity, staffed by Petter Rudi, Andy Hinchcliffe, Danny Sonner, Wim Jonk and Niclas Alexandersson.

Middlesbrough, by contrast, are so short of ideas they have resorted to desperation remedies. The attempt to re-sign Emerson was a backward step that smacked of panic button pressing. And so did the equally abortive bid for Georgi Kinkladze.

Middlesbrough already have one maverick too many. Not that Paul Gascoigne is the only passenger struggling to pull his weight on the steadily sinking ship at the Riverside.

Goals: Booth (11) 1-0; Sonner (76) 2-0; Musctoe (77) 2-1; Booth (79) 3-1.

Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-2): Pressman; Atherton, Thome, Walker, Hinchcliffe; Alexandersson, Jonk, Sonner, Rudi; Booth, Carbone. Substitutes not used: Cobian, Humphreys, Stefanovic, Clarke (gk).

Middlesbrough (5-3-2): Schwarzer; Stockdale (Harrison, 89), Cooper, Vickers, Pallister, Gordon; Mustoe, Gascoigne (Maddison, h-t), Townsend; Ricard, Beck. Substitutes not used: Campbell, Summerbell, Beresford (gk).

Bookings: Wednesday: Hinchcliffe, Carbone. Middlesbrough: Gascoigne.

Referee: M Riley (Leeds).

Man of the match: Rudi.

Attendance: 24,534.