Steve McClaren once spoke fondly of European nights at the Riverside, of the sights and sounds that brought the stadium very much to life. He no longer does. There are still sights, those of isolated supporters with whole blocks to choose from where to plonk themselves. And there are still sounds synonymous with Middlesbrough's Uefa Cup exploits the unmistakable rattle of thousands of empty seats battered by Teesside winds.
A season-low crowd of 9,436 proved only slightly more lethargic than those they turned out to cheer, but until two late goals it was something of a close-run thing: "We're in a run of four home games and fans have to prioritise. I'd be just the same," McClaren said, diplomatically.
Massimo Maccarone atoned for some atrocious earlier attempts with both goals to help gloss over the 80 previous minutes. A stooping far-post header from Adam Johnson's cross was bettered by a stunning 25-yard drive into the top corner seven minutes later.
They at least restored the will to live, while also securing the top spot in Group D, which will secure them games against one of the teams placed third (Slavia Prague, Lokomotiv Moskow, Hertha Berlin, Basle, Heerenveen and VfB Stuttgart) in six of the remaining seven groups in today's draw for the last 32. They avoid Bolton because two English teams cannot be paired with each other.
Maccarone's two late goals were accompanied by another clean sheet, meaning Middlesbrough are yet to concede a goal in Europe this season.
With passage to the knock-out stages already assured, both sides did their utmost to avoid being dragged into a game that resembled a pre-season friendly. After encouraging beginnings, they failed.
"We're relieved to get through the group," McClaren said. " We've topped it by scoring six and conceding none and we'll look forward to the draw and then put it to bed until February.
"I've seen the six clubs we can potentially draw and I thought they'd put the wrong six up. It just shows the good teams we have to play. They all have pedigree and tradition in Europe and whichever one it is it'll be a hard game for us."
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Jones; Bates, Ehiogu, Riggott, Queudrue; Morrison, Doriva, Kennedy, Johnson; Maccarone, Hasselbaink (Cattermole, 83). Substitutes not used: Schwarzer (gk), Southgate, Boateng, Yakubu, Wheater, Viduka.
Litex Lovech (4-4-1-1): Vutov; Berberovic, Caillet, Cichero, Venkov; Genchev, Palankov (Kirilov, 76), Jelenkovic, Zlatinov (Lyubenov, 74); Correa; Novakovic. Substitutes not used: Todorov (gk), Zhelev, Manolev, Hazurov, Zanev.
Referee: S Gumienny (Belgium).
Uefa Cup last 32 qualifiers
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