Fowler's panache betrayed by Doomsday defence

Middlesbrough 2 Leeds United 2
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The Independent Online

David O'Leary talked of squandering two points and no one could argue with the Leeds manager after seeing Robbie Fowler announce yet again that when his mood is right and his fitness complete he is out on his own as a natural-born English scoring talent.

Michael Owen's appetite for goals is unparalleled. Teddy Sheringham retains the aura of the thinking man's assassin. Emile Heskey's muscularity has resurfaced to telling effect. But Fowler, in the form that should have left Middlesbrough shredded and disdainfully discarded long before half-time, is the class act. He turned Boro inside out, made one goal with magnificent peripheral vision and commendable unselfishness and scored another with the instinct of a wolf.

So what went wrong? More or less everything that should apply to genuine championship contenders. O'Leary has now gone six games without a win, and if this is a mystery when set against the quality of personnel that he was able to send on to the field in the absence of the suspended Alan Smith, Danny Mills, and Lee Bowyer, it was not so difficult to to unravel after Dean Windass equalised two minutes from the end with a free header from, of all places, inside the six-yard box.

This was Doomsday defence, so abject it was hard to believe that just five days earlier Leeds had been humiliated at home because of Liverpool's greater ability to exploit such shoddiness at set-pieces. What had Leeds been doing in the intervening six days? Slavishly refocusing? Perhaps not.

Someone put a clock on the elapsed time between the awarding of a corner, Benito Carbone's cross and Windass's formality goal. It was 16 seconds. That should be a lifetime in the hair-trigger responses of big-time football. But Leeds were caught hopelessly short.

Where will it end? O'Leary said that there were 12 matches and 36 points left and talk of the Inter-Toto route into Europe was premature. Perhaps. What isn't in question is the need for a stiffening of the Leeds effort. There are rumours that Eddie Gray, the Elland Road hero who was supplanted as first- team coach by Brian Kidd last season – when Leeds were in fourth place and the quarter-finals of the Champions' League with football of bite and precocious authority – may be restored to his old duties. Nothing Leeds did in this game was designed to scotch them.

Indeed, Kidd's frustration was at one point expressed dramatically enough in the "technical area" of the touchline. The recipient of Kidd's stream of consciousness was Harry Kewell. The player held his hands on his hips. It was not the posture of a man in any imminent danger of busting a blood vessel. After some of his usual grace notes in a first half in which Leeds looked relatively purposeful, and at times superbly relaxed on the ball, Kewell performed quite wretchedly. His talent is huge and often lovely to see, but on this day it was shorn of all resolve.

Mark Viduka, who, with Kewell, was one of the more compelling reasons to believe in Leeds as the rising force in English football, went the same irrelevant way as his Australian compatriot in the second half. This was doubly depressing in that it had been Viduka's slick back-heel which had set up Fowler's killer ball to Eirik Bakke for the first goal in the 19th minute.

It was a beautiful strike, simple but eloquent in its exploitation of superior skill and movement. It should have confirmed a huge disparity in class. But long before the end it had come to serve only as a reproach to a desperately underachieving team.

Paul Ince, who appeared to be operating in fast-setting cement for much of the first half, at last found some urgent movement and in the 51st minute he equalised. It was a bizarre goal which came when a harmless-looking shot hit a spot that would have thrilled Shane Warne and flew beyond the grasp of a startled Nigel Martyn, but it was also the product of Leeds' willingness to allow Boro back into the game. Carbone, benefiting from the arrival after the interval of Alen Boksic, had become significant as he scurried into acres of unoccupied space, and it was against the tide of the match that Fowler put Leeds back in front. Ian Harte's free-kick arrived in the box like a mortar shell and the unattended striker's back-header gave Mark Crossley no chance.

Later, Middlesbrough's Steve McClaren, who reports for duty as Sven Goran Eriksson's chief coach today for Wednesday's game in Amsterdam, bemoaned his team's failure to produce a 90-minute performance.

He might have been better concentrating on the appalling defensive ineptitude which allowed Fowler the absolute freedom of the Boro box. Gareth Southgate and his colleagues were transfixed on the line as Fowler's header rocketed home. Certainly it must be hoped that England apply a little more sophistication – and resolution against the Dutch, for whom the antidote of a large dollop of Polyfilla might make a little more sense.

For Leeds the priorities are as much psychological as tactical. Though the concession of the late goal was technically illiterate, Leeds greatest deficiency seemed to be of the heart. The referee Neale Barry called their collision with Aston Villa, during which he sent off the enfant terrible Alan Smith, "evil". Against Boro, all Leeds could produce was the occasional hint of truculence. But really it wasn't a question of Nasty Leeds or Benign Leeds. It was Unrecognisable Leeds. Their loss of identity is surely reaching a critical level.

Goals: Bakke (19) 0-1; Ince (51) 1-1; Fowler (54) 1-2; Windass (88) 2-2.

Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Crossley 5; Ehiogu 5, Southgate 5, Festa 6; Gavin 3 (Mustoe 5, h-t), Stamp 6 (Boksik 5, h-t), Ince 6, Greening 4 (Windass 79), Quedrue 6; Carbone 6, Whelan 5. Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Murphy.

Leeds United (4-4-2): Martyn 6; Kelly 6, Ferdinand 5, Matteo 5, Harte 5; Bakke 5, Batty 6, Dacourt 6, Kewell 3; Viduka 4, Fowler 8. Substitutes not used: Robinson (gk), Keane, McPhail, Wilcox, Duberry.

Referee: N Barry (Scunthorpe) 6.

Booked: Middlesbrough: Ince. Leeds: Bakke.

Man of the match: Fowler.

Attendance: 30,221.

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