Louis Saha resembled a man with his mind elsewhere - Old Trafford, perhaps - as Fulham slipped to a defeat last night which stalls their progress towards a lucrative place in the top four of the Premiership.
However, he was not the only Fulham player to make a negligible impact on a match deservedly won by an enterprising Middlesbrough side through goals from Joseph-Desiré Job and Szilard Nemeth. Barry Hayles' last-minute strike came too late for Fulham.
They could have done with Saha firing on all cylinders and their manager, Chris Coleman, was critical of his striker's stance on Fulham refusing Manchester United's offer for him. "I saw Louis' comment and I will nip it in the bud. I understand he is disappointed, but he has a job to do at Fulham. He is a very important part of our team," Coleman said. "It would be a dream for him to play for Manchester United, but selling our top scorer would be bad management by me and bad for the club."
Saha, playing as Fulham's lone striker, has been responsible for 14 of Fulham's goals this season - the same number mustered by Middlesbrough in the Premiership. The response of their manager, Steve McClaren, was to employ three forwards in Juninho, Nemeth and Job, and there was an admirably aggressive air about Boro from the start.
They almost took the lead after nine minutes when the Fulham goalkeeper, Edwin van der Sar, made a fine reflex save at the foot of the post after Stewart Downing's shot was deflected by Zat Knight.
Then, with only 14 minutes gone, Middlesbrough provided a rare treat for their supporters with a goal from Job. It stemmed from a left-wing corner awarded despite Fulham's claim that the ball had gone behind off Job. Downing's flag-kick set up Ugo Ehiogu and, after his shot was blocked by Van der Sar, Job hooked in the rebound from six yards.
Lee Clark should have equalised in the 22nd minute after being left with a clear opening by Steed Malbranque's pass, but Brad Jones, Middlesbrough's third-choice goalkeeper making his Premiership debut, diverted his shot wide. Jones, who turned down the chance to link up with Australia's Under-23s for the Olympic qualifiers, also did well to grasp a low shot from Luis Boa Morte. But these were isolated threats and Fulham would have been further adrift by the interval if Gareth Southgate and Juninho had accepted excellent chances.
After Boa Morte sliced a useful opportunity wide in the opening moments of the second half, Middlesbrough reasserted their authority but found a second goal elusive. Franck Queudrue and Job were close to heading in crosses from Downing, while the lively winger steered a shot across goal following another cross from Danny Mills.
Middlesbrough were eventually rewarded for their refreshing approach in the 67th minute when Van der Sar failed to cling to a free-kick from Downing. The persistent Southgate and Ehiogu returned the loose ball to the danger area and Nemeth drove it past two defenders on the line.
Middlesbrough (4-3-3): Jones 7; Mills 6, Ehiogu 6, Southgate 6, Queudrue 6; Boateng 6, Zenden 7, Downing 8; Nemeth 6, Job 8, Juninho 7. Substitutes not used: Turnbull (gk), Riggott, Maccarone, Doriva, Parnaby.
Fulham (4-4-2): Van der Sar 7; Djetou 6, Knight 6, Melville 6, Green 6; Malbranque 5, Legwinski 5 (Hayles 6, 70), Clark 6, Davis 5; Boa Morte 5, Saha 5. Substitutes not used: Crossley (gk), Inamoto, Hudson, Petta.
Referee: P Durkin (Dorset) 6.