Downing conducts Middlesbrough's lightning strikes

Middlesbrough 3 - Aston Villa 0
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The Independent Online

Two down, two minutes to go, but still Nolberto Solano dashed back from halfway. His full-back was tiring. He needed to cover the Middlesbrough defender Michael Reiziger's rare foray forward.

Two down, two minutes to go, but still Nolberto Solano dashed back from halfway. His full-back was tiring. He needed to cover the Middlesbrough defender Michael Reiziger's rare foray forward.

He succeeded. Reiziger slowed up. Then Solano slipped up, tumbling to the turf. "That made my mind up," admitted Reiziger, who crept into the penalty area and struck what may be his first league goal from open play for nine years. Solano picked ruefully at his studs.

"I don't score many," Reiziger said, "but the worse thing is my parents and girlfriend come to every game and weren't here today. I'll have to phone them, but I don't think they'll believe me."

Three down, one minute to go, Solano sped forward. Carlton Cole crossed. Six yards from goal, Solano spun and hit the ball into the ground rather than the net. His reaction was similar to Reiziger's family on the phone.

"It was amazing because we missed so many chances," Solano said. "The second half was unbelievable, one of the most incredible games I've played in. Our next games are Chelsea and Manchester United. If we play like this at Chelsea, it'll be good enough to take points off them."

His manager, David O'Leary, said: "The bottom line is that you can out-play and batter a team, and out-possession them, but goals win games and their finishing was lethal and ours wasn't." O'Leary needed no introduction to the lethal finisher of the first. Gareth Southgate headed Gareth Barry's shot off the line, Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink received it on halfway, hurtled off, cut inside Mark Delaney and, with an inevitability, lashed the ball into the net.

"I went one Sunday after a game," reminisced O'Leary of his days as Leeds' number two, "and flew down to Portugal and climbed over a fence and watched him with George Graham. We bought him for a million quid and sold him for £12m. And that's what Middlesbrough have done: invested in proven quality."

Boro's skyscraping fifth place is also due to their local youngsters. At right-back, the 18-year-old Durham lad, Anthony McMahon, made his 15th start of the season, while the 21-year-old Teessider, Stewart Downing, fizzed through midfield.

The undisputed taker of Middlesbrough's set-pieces, Downing did defensive duties, he rescued Southgate's goalline clearance and set in motion the move for the first goal. He set up the second, accepting Olof Mellberg's misplaced header and streaking forward, lightning quick, studiously ignored Hasselbaink's demands, preferring instead the unmarked Joseph-Desire Job who stroked home.

Downing's manager Steve McClaren suggested that, after three games in a week, the boy might be a bit tired.

O'Leary said, reminiscing once more of his Leeds days: "Downing has the potential. He looks an impressive young man, exceptional. He reminds me a lot of [Harry] Kewell in his early days." Sven Goran Eriksson said last week that Downing will probably make his debut in an England friendly in the new year. So by the end of 2005 Downing could be a household name - whereas in his own house before kick-off, on the hand-written teamsheet given to the referee his name was given as the wrong sort of Stuart.

Goals: Hasselbaink (20) 1-0; Job (68) 2-0; Reiziger (88) 3-0.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; McMahon, Riggott (Cooper, 38) Southgate, Reiziger; Nemeth (Doriva, 62), Boateng, Zenden, Downing; Viduka (Job, h-t), Hasselbaink. Substitutes not used: Nash (gk), Morrison.

Aston Villa (4-5-1): Sorensen; De la Cruz, Delaney, Mellberg, Samuel; Solano, McCann (Cole, 76), Davis, Whittingham (Berson, h-t), Barry; Angel. Substitutes not used: Postma (gk), Ridgewell, Moore.

Referee: A D'Urso (Essex).

Booked: Aston Villa: Whittingham.

Man of the match: Hasselbaink.

Attendance: 31,338.

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