Football: Villa lit up by Saunders

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Middlesbrough. . .2

Aston Villa. . . .3

NO AMOUNT of honest toil could prevent Middlesbrough from losing their unbeaten home record or bridge the difference in class which at times was as wide as the mouth of the Tees. Do not be misled by the final score. Judged by the number of chances they had, Aston Villa had a prima-facie case for at least three more goals.

On this evidence it does seem that after 18 signings, 17 departures and 16 months, Ron Atkinson has finally, with the purchase of Dean Saunders, assembled a team which can make a realistic challenge for the title.

It was the fluorescent talent of Saunders which lit up a damp afternoon after 22 minutes. Not for the first time was Steve Froggatt the master of Chris Morris, and the winger's cross this time eluded two Boro defenders for Saunders to swoop, and drive low into the corner from eight yards.

The home side struggled to gain some measure of the visitors' perpetual motion, and relied heavily on the breakaway runs of Tommy Wright. His pass to Paul Wilkinson brought a solitary chance before the break, but Boro's top scorer, sliding in, miscued, allowing Shaun Teale to clear off the line.

Whatever Lennie Lawrence said at half-time, his verbals certainly restored the Boro's attacking beliefs for a while. It took a magnificent diving save by Nigel Spink to keep out Wilkinson's diving header, but the keeper could do nothing about the equaliser in the 61st minute when Bernie Slaven turned in the rebound from Wilkinson's shot.

Then, as if by the flick of a switch, Villa turned their first-half power back on. In the 71st minute Dalian Atkinson strolled through to score and three minutes later Saunders's second, a simple tap-in, looked to have settled it. But a last rally and a deflected own goal by Paul McGrath produced the flattering scoreline.

Middlesbrough: I Ironside; C Morris, J Phillips, A Kernaghan, D Whyte, A Peake, B Slaven, R Mustoe, P Wilkinson, J Pollock, T Wright. Subs not used: M Proctor, J Gittens, A Collett (gk). Manager: L Lawrence.

Aston Villa: N Spink; E Barrett, S Staunton, S Teale, P McGrath, K Richardson, R Houghton, G Parker (M Blake, 88 min), D Saunders, D Atkinson, S Froggatt (D Yorke, 71 min). Sub not used: L Sealey (gk). Manager: R Atkinson.

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).

Goals: Saunders (0-1, 22 min); Slaven (1-1, 61 min); Atkinson (1-2, 71 min); Saunders (1-3, 74 min); McGrath og (2-3, 87 min).