Southampton followed a far too casual first-half performance with a far too frantic one after the interval to concede their maiden defeat of the season. Following their bright start to the campaign, no one had expected Gordon Strachan's men to play so disappointingly, especially at home where they had kept three successive clean sheets.
"We're not Real Madrid you know," a philosophical Strachan said after the game. "It happens sometimes that you can be playing well and then suddenly lose a game at home. That's life."
The ultimate irony is that their proud St Mary's record should be broken by a normally goal-shy Middlesbrough team, who had scored just five times before yesterday's narrow victory. "It's been a good week for us," Steve McClaren said. "We haven't conceded a goal and we've got three wins, so I'm happy. Hopefully we can use this to build upon and go on from here."
Having begun this season the same way they finished the last - namely, struggling to string results together - Boro adopted their now all too familiar 4-5-1 formation. The ploy may not win any style contests, but it won them their first League game of the season last Sunday against Everton and it helped them take all three points here yesterday.
The visitors cleared their lines with a hopeful punt up-field which caught the normally alert Southampton defence by surprise. By the time the back-four had accepted that there was no offside to save their blushes, Malcolm Christie had snuck in behind them and gathered possession on the right flank. Michael Svensson and Graeme Le Saux did their best to catch up, but could do little to prevent the former Derby striker from cutting inside and unleashing a powerful left-foot strike at goal. The shot was low and rasping, but the Saints' goalkeeper Paul Jones will be disappointed to have been beaten at his near-post.
The home side did try to force their way back into the contest, most notably when Paul Telfer saw his left-foot drive from just outside the area pushed on to the post by Mark Schwarzer moments before half-time, but Middlesbrough's rear guard, led admirably by Colin Cooper in the absence of Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu, held firm. "We wanted to go back to basics," McClaren explained, "and the back four have helped us do that." In fact, the visitors might even have extended their lead when, just past the half-hour mark, Boudewijn Zenden, who is on a season-long loan from Chelsea, curled a 25-yard free-kick inches over the bar.
Strachan says he is a calmer man nowadays, but he would have had a few choice words for his players during the interval. Whatever he said at least had an impact, as the home side came out with far more purpose and desire. Clear-cut chances were still at a premium, though, forcing the Scot to replace his full-back Jason Dodd with the more attacking midfielder Anders Svensson just eight minutes into the second half.
The switch had the desired effect, in so far as the home side were suddenly launching cross after cross into the box. It says much about the quality of the deliveries that not one of them ever troubled Schwarzer. Time and again, James Beattie and Phillips could only stand and watch as yet another ball sailed over their heads. No wonder, then, that Beattie decided to reverse the roles, venturing outside the area to collect the ball before whipping in a terrific cross to the far post. McCann was there but stretching too much to make any decent contact.
In one final throw of the dice, Strachan sent on Brett Ormerod to form a three-man attack, but to no avail. Boro were now playing with nine men behind the ball and frustrating Southampton. So much so, in fact, that Phillips eventually lashed out at Franck Queudrue at the death, a piece of petulance for which he was rightly sent off.
Southampton 0 Middlesbrough 1
Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 30,772Reuse content