McClaren may abandon caution in raid on Roma

Whether to defend a one-goal lead or attack is Boro manager's dilemma in the Uefa Cup tonight, as fans hope for help from higher power, writes Jason Mellor
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The Independent Football

If Steve McClaren needed a sign that, after five years of trying, he is finally winning over Middlesbrough supporters, it will come this morning from the Vatican.

McClaren's idea of being gung-ho is allowing a cheeky top-up of his favourite glass of red, but he is faced with an altogether more significant temptation to go against his naturally cautious instincts tonight in the Eternal City.

If the Middlesbrough manager's tactical calculations do happen to go awry, he will be hoping to count on some rather weighty divine intervention in his campaign to help write the latest chapter in club history.

Among the 3,000 travelling fans at the Stadio Olimpico will be six Middlesbrough-supporting Roman Catholic priests, fresh from an audience with the Pope. John Paul Leonard, of St Mary's Cathedral, Coulby Newham, has organised the unique double-header for the football fanatic fathers.

After an early morning Vatican visit, the calcio-loving clerics will swap dog collars for Boro colours, armed with a significant blessing for Boro's hopes of disposing of Roma to make the last eight of the Uefa Cup for the first time.

"It could be the ultimate day," enthused Father Leonard. "Seeing the Pope in the morning and then watching Boro in the evening."

Father Patrick Keogh has kept the faith with Boro for 32 years, and admits that he will be seeking a little Papal support from Benedict XVI. He added: "I think we will win. I do pray for Boro, but it doesn't always seem to work."

A European campaign built on defensive solidity will be put squarely to the test as the visitors defend a single-goal first-leg advantage. The nine changes McClaren made to rest key players for the Premiership defeat at Charlton on Sunday highlight the importance this competition has taken on with top-flight safety now all but assured for Boro.

The Middlesbrough manager has built his reputation on a safety-first mentality, but in the back of his mind he knows that with a slightly more positive set-up, an away goal will require Roma to score three to progress.

Such a scenario is unlikely, given that Middlesbrough have conceded just twice, both to the Germans Stuttgart, in almost 14 hours of Uefa Cup action this season.

Because of this, McClaren has agonised over his approach, and the team-sheet will give the first clear indication of his thinking tonight. The tactical advice from the Vatican is unclear.

Emanuel Pogatetz admits that the stick or twist paradox is one Boro must have clear in their mind before kick-off. The Austrian defender said: "We know a clean sheet will see us through and the longer the game goes on like that the more it will open up.

"It's dangerous to sit back and defend. We go there looking for a goal. If we can score the tie will be finished and we'll be going through." They are sentiments echoed by Stewart Downing. Middlesbrough could yet come to rue a glaring late miss from Gaizka Mendieta at the Riverside six days ago, and the England winger said: "We can't sit back against a team of Roma's quality.

"We know that would be dangerous. They pass the ball well but then so do we. If we can get the goal it will give us a massive chance of going through."

George Boateng, the midfielder, is confident of over-coming the ankle problem he sustained in the first leg. The Dutch international said: "We went out at this stage last season so to go through would represent real progress."

Attempting to deliver a dose of reverse psychology, Boateng added: "It might sound strange, but I'm happy we didn't score a second goal. It means the tie is still in the balance. If we'd got that second it would have been tempting to sit back on the lead and that can be very dangerous."

Roma were cautious on Teesside, but their former Leeds United player Olivier Dacourt believes they will be a different proposition on home soil in their 200th European tie.

The Italian club are without Francesco Totti, Vincenzo Montella and Shabani Nonda, but the midfielder Dacourt insisted: "Middlesbrough deserve their lead, but 1-0 wasn't a bad result for us.

"They will face an unbelievable atmosphere when the stadium is full."

However, with their important new supporter onside, Middlesbrough hope to see the white smoke rising on their European hopes later tonight.

Roma (4-5-1): Curci; Panucci, Kuffour, Mexès, Cufre; Dacourt, Kharja, Taddei, Tommasi, Perrotta; Mancini

Middlesbrough (4-5-1): Schwarzer; Davies, Southgate, Riggott, Pogatetz; Mendieta, Cattermole, Boateng, Doriva, Downing; Yakubu.

Referee: T Henning Ovrebo (Norway).