Juninho grabs advantage for Middlesbrough

Arsenal 0 Middlesbrough 1
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The Independent Online

Fielding a team including several members barely old enough - and one who was not - to sup the sponsor's product, Arsenal stumbled in the first leg of this Carling Cup semi-final. In doing so, they lost at home for only the second time this season and the first since September. Then it was Internazionale; last night it was the obdurate qualities of Middlesbrough, who only conceded one shot on target.

Fielding a team including several members barely old enough - and one who was not - to sup the sponsor's product, Arsenal stumbled in the first leg of this Carling Cup semi-final. In doing so, they lost at home for only the second time this season and the first since September. Then it was Internazionale; last night it was the obdurate qualities of Middlesbrough, who only conceded one shot on target.

The contest was, of course, made a curiosity by Arsène Wenger's policy of resting so many players. He made nine changes from the recent 4-1 humbling of the same opponents in the League, but for the Teessiders, still without a major trophy in their 129-year history, that was not their concern.

In the recalled Brazilian Juninho, a veteran of the two Wembley finals and relegation in 1997, Boro had the most accomplished and committed performer.

It is now one apiece with two more encounters to come between these sides before the month's end. On balance, each has the result, if they had to choose, that they wanted. Wenger made that clear. "We try to keep our unbeaten record in the Premiership," he said, justifying his selection. Il ne regrette rien. "I think we played well and I'm pleased I did what I have done." Mischievously he pointed out that it was not his team's first domestic defeat. "We lost against Peterborough," he said of a friendly last summer. "And that was a big one."

On Saturday, in the FA Cup, who knows whom he will play. Not that this tie is over. The Riverside has been a happy hunting ground for Arsenal and the margin is slender as Steve McClaren, the Middlesbrough manager, acknowledged. "It could have been, should have been more," he said. "It [the final] is close but still a million miles away."

It sounded a nervous statement but then this competition, which also offers a route into Europe, means more to him. "It was a massive, massive game for this football club, so we are satisfied," McClaren said. It was the first time he had prevailed against Arsenal in his three years as a manager.

The Gunners deployed their light artillery, the most obvious absentee being Thierry Henry. Without him they lacked explosion. Wenger's options were limited by injury and so he started with the exciting 17-year-old Dutch striker Quincy Owusu-Abeyie, who proceeded to try and beat Cristiano Ronaldo's all-time record for step-overs, with Kanu, who will leave for the African Nations Cup today. Richly talented, they were impoverished when it came to providing a killer instinct. Over-elaboration was an understatement.

The Football League may have expressed its displeasure at Arsenal's selection tactics but no one will have cavilled at the presence of David Bentley, 19, although in truth he struggled to impose himself. There was an audacious chip from the rim of the penalty area after 16 minutes which nudged over and a wonderful twist and turn to beat Gaizka Mendieta. He also delivered, without power, Arsenal's only accurate shot.

Middlesbrough conceded possession and let the home side play in front of them. Juninho almost drew first blood, however, on 16 minutes as he broke cleverly, and at pace, before striking a low shot which came back off the base of the post. A fierce drive from Massimo Maccarone had also skidded wide as it jutted off Martin Keown. At the other end, Kolo Touré cut inside to produce an equally threatening shot.

It was a refreshingly open game, aided by the greasy turf as much as the exuberance of youth. Middlesbrough had also come out much more aggressively than 11 days before but, understandably, it took time for their confidence to grow. It blossomed after the break. Juninho came close again, stealing the ball from the leaden feet of Gilberto Silva and curling a shot towards the far post. The stand-in goalkeeper, Graham Stack, saved smartly. But it only delayed matters.

Ironically, it was an error by Arsenal's most experienced player which facilitated the goal. Keown, 37, slipped and Franck Queudrue forced the ball to Mendieta, who rolled it across the penalty area. This time the irrepressible Juninho, unmarked and with time, calmly shot low, right-footed and beyond Stack.

Wenger had left himself little variation among the substitutes but he demanded pressure. Kanu tied his own feet in knots, Touré headed weakly and Ray Parlour appealed vociferously, desperately even, for a penalty as his cross struck Chris Riggott's arm. It would have been harsh. It was Middlesbrough who should have killed the game ­ and the tie ­ as both managers acknowledged, especially when the substitute Joseph-Desiré Job scooped the ball wastefully over from just six yards out.

Wenger insists he will field "the kids" in the return leg, although fewer will, injury permitting, be on show. "The fact is it's 1-0 and that gives us a good chance," he said. McClaren, amid his understandable celebrations, will have shuddered in agreement.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Stack; Touré, Cygan, Keown, Clichy; Parlour, Edu, Gilberto Silva, Bentley (Smith, 73); Owusu-Abeyie (Thomas, 64), Kanu. Substitutes not used: Holloway (gk), Cole, Skulason.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Mills, Riggott, Ehiogu, Queudrue; Mendieta (Parnaby, 80), Doriva, Boateng, Zenden; Juninho, Maccarone (Job, 77). Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Ricketts, Downing.

Referee: S Dunn (Bristol).

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