Internazionale beaten, the road to the Worthington Cup final open and bottom of the Premiership, the reality facing Ipswich as the Tractor Boys splutter into December is a queasy one.
George Burley has set his side a target of 50 points, which, at the present rate of progress, they should achieve sometime in August 2003. Had Ipswich been in this situation last December, it would have been considered utterly unremarkable, so low were expectations when promotion was won. Pretty though much of their football is, Ipswich are a long way from being too good to go down; they have fewer points than Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest had scraped together at this stage of the 1992-93 season when they passed their way into oblivion. Last season's heroics and the constant quality of their football has meant the fall from grace has been harder to explain, save in terms of "second-season syndrome".
Still, Burley was able to take comfort from the fact that Ipswich displayed the kind of solidity that was entirely absent against Bolton last week and but for referee David Pugh's decision to ignore the bundling over of Marcus Bent, making a reasonably impressive debut after too many months spent rusting in Blackburn's reserves, his side would have been awarded a first-half penalty. After the interval, Pablo Couñago struck the post and Hermann Hreidarsson's header, directed into the ground, grazed the crossbar.
"Of the two sides we are probably the most disappointed not to have got the three points," said Burley. "Last season it would have hit the woodwork and gone in and I thought it was a blatant penalty. The players deserved the points because they showed so much energy after the game they'd had on Thursday."
Steve McClaren smiled when asked if he thought Ipswich would have tired in the second half. The Boro manager said the Premiership would only start to settle into a recognisable pattern in January and he did not expect to see Ipswich in the bottom four in two months' time.
However, to confirm his optimism, Ipswich will have to sharpen up an attack which will be without Marcus Stewart for the next two months and which has been averaging no better than a goal a game.
"We were solid at the back but going forward our final ball was disappointing," said McClaren, as he strained to watch Manchester United's defence being sliced apart by Thierry Henry on the press room televisions.
Despite the poor service, Alen Boksic was still good enough to force a very fine save from Matteo Sereni as Robbie Mustoe threaded a pass through two blue shirts on the hour. In spasms Boro looked able to force the issue but, as their manager pointed out, they are at their most effective at the back, where Ugo Ehiogu and Gareth Southgate have forged a partnership which may yet justify the $14m spent on them. Coming games against Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal, should test them to the limit.
Middlesbrough: (4-4-2) Crossley 6, Stockdale 5, Ehiogu 6, Southgate 7, Queudrue 4, Marinelli 6 (Hudson, 89), Mustoe 6, Greening 5, Johnston 4 (Wilson, 76), Nemeth 5 (Windass, 75), Boksic 6. Substitutes not used: Cooper, Beresford (gk).
Ipswich Town: (4-4-2) Sereni 7, Makin 5, Bramble 4, Venus 5, Hreidarsson 6, Wright 6, Peralta 4 (T Miller 5, 75), Holland 7, Clapham 6, M Bent 6 (Naylor 5, 67), Armstrong 5 (Couñago 7, 62). Substitutes not used: Gaardsoe, Branagan (gk).
Referee: D Pugh (Merseyside) 4.
Man of the match: Holland.
Attendance: 32,586.Reuse content