Hard work starts to pay dividend for Southgate

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The Independent Online

Gareth Southgate has called on his Middlesbrough side to maintain their good defensive form and take another step towards Premier League survival at Tottenham tonight.

Boro have tightened up considerably in recent weeks and have conceded just two goals in their last four league and cup games.

Another shut-out at White Hart Lane will keep the run going, after Boro recorded two crucial 2-0 wins last week. Firstly, they beat West Ham in the FA Cup fifth round and then overcame Liverpool at the Riverside for three vital points.

"We made a deliberate decision to tighten up after we lost at West Brom in the middle of January," said Southgate. "It's been hard work but the players have stuck to their task and now we are starting to see the benefits.

"A couple of clean sheets were the first step and although we continued to receive criticism from outside the club, we have come through it and we are now scoring goals as well. The main thing is that we must show the resilience if we are to remain difficult to break down.

"If we are going to stay in this league we will need to win at least one away game before the end of the season, and possibly two. We know that it will be very difficult at Spurs because they will be determined to bounce back from their Carling Cup defeat. But we have to treat every game from now on as winnable."

The key to Boro's improvement is the fine form of their back line. David Wheater and Robert Huth have been tough in central defence and Southgate said earlier this week that "you need two big, ugly centre-halves if you are to fight your way out of trouble".

Another bonus is the form of goalkeeper Brad Jones, who has seized his opportunity since coming in for Ross Turnbull, conceding just one Premier League goal in four games.

"We knew that Brad was a top keeper and he has wasted no chance proving himself since he came back into the side," said Southgate. "He has shown a good pair of hands, he's made some excellent saves for us and maybe the best thing of all is his decision-making, which has been spot on."

Boro have also been increasingly effective in midfield, where Gary O'Neil is impressing. The 25-year-old was the subject of a transfer-window bid from former club Portsmouth, and was reportedly keen to return there, but Boro refused to sell and the player insists he is committed to the cause.

He said: "I'll play for this club as long as I'm asked to. I'm just desperate to do well for myself and the club, so hopefully we can finish as high up the table as possible. I'm disappointed because I've had a lot of niggles and a six-week hamstring injury – which came about in the Bolton game – and that was the last time I had a run in the team. I scored at Everton and played well at Aston Villa. We were on a good run then and since then my season has been broken up a bit with niggles.

"I feel I'm just getting back into the swing of things now. I'm just going to play as hard as I can and I'm looking forward to us trying to keep things going at Tottenham. The lads are really up for it."

Tottenham captain Ledley King will miss the game at White Hart Lane tonight to rest his knee.

Jonathan Woodgate will need a late check on the Achilles injury that ruled him out of the Carling Cup final on Sunday, while goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini is back following a knee problem.

Cudicini, Robbie Keane, Pascal Chimbonda, Fraizer Campbell and Wilson Palacios – who were cup-tied for the Wembley tie – are back in the squad, but Jermain Defoe and Alan Hutton (both foot) remain sidelined.

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