Middlesbrough 2 Xanthi 0

Middlesbrough needing answers as fans stay away
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The Independent Football

Most notably, just what was the fate of the "special" Riverside Stadium atmosphere supposedly evident on European nights that Steve McClaren waxed lyrical over in his programme notes? It was in little evidence at a venue filled only by a howling gale, as McClaren's rallying call was met with stunning apathy.

With a gate of just 14,101, there were almost two unoccupied seats for every one taken by those who braved a bitter Teesside night. The "atmosphere" was provided by the travelling Xanthi contingent, one which did not quite make it to three figures. Their club is sponsored by the car firm Skoda, and they could conceivably have arrived in a couple of them.

"We're very disappointed with the crowd," admitted McClaren. "The team hasn't been backed by the fans after working so hard to get into Europe again.

"We set the players a minimum of two goals and we achieved that, but we know the tie is not over yet even though we hold an important advantage. Xanthi have shown they can cause us problems."

Middlesbrough made un-necessarily hard work of fashioning a first-leg lead they should defend comfortably in a fortnight, when McClaren is likely to field a stronger line-up than the one which gained victory here thanks to goals in each half from their most prominent performer, George Boateng, and Mark Viduka.

An improved Xanthi showing after the break made a contest of it, and Middlesbrough were fortunate not to concede an away goal which would have made their task in the return a lot more difficult.

Led by an impressive display from Emerson, sporting a slightly less ridiculous hairstyle to the one he opted for during a turbulent 18-month spell here in the 1990s, the Greeks enjoyed their best spell in a hectic opening to the second half, fashioning five decent openings. Aiyegbeni Yakubu, a late substitute, spurned an even clearer opening to provide some valuable breathing space when heading wide. After 75 minutes of general ineptitude, it came as little surprise. Middlesbrough were poor, Xanthi were simply not good enough to exploit the fact.

Viduka, who played a prominent role in Boateng's opening goal, doubled the advantage seven minutes from time. Xanthi had surrendered parity shortly before the half-hour, as Middlesbrough scored with their first notable foray. Viduka hooked a hopeful ball forward. Massimo Maccarone latched on to the pass, overpowering the labouring Ioannis Papadimitriou, before seeing his shot well saved by Petr Pizanowski.

The rebound fell kindly for the supporting Boateng, and the Dutchman was left with ample time to dispatch his first goal of the season.

Ioannis Matzourakis, the Xanthi manager, admitted: "We showed Middlesbrough too much respect and the second goal makes things hard, but we've still not given up hope of springing a surprise."

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Xavier, Ehiogu, Bates, Pogatetz; Parlour (Morrison, 74), Doriva, Boateng, Johnson (Queudrue, 60); Viduka, Maccarone (Yakubu, 74). Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Southgate, Graham, Kennedy.

Xanthi (4-4-2): Pizanowski; Torosidis (Quintana, 66), Paviot (Kazakis, 87), Sikov, Papadimitriou; Maghradze (Cozalves, 76), Antzas, Emerson, Andrade; De Souza, Labriakos. Substitutes not used: Anastasopoulos (gk), Zapropoulos, Carabas, Lafata.

Referee: S Messner (Austria).