Pires steals in to prise victory from Middlesbrough's iron grip

Middlesbrough 0 Arsenal 1
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The Independent Football

Middlesbrough is A town forged by iron and steel, and its footballers have been hammered by Arsenal in recent years. On two of their previous three League visits before Saturday, Arsenal had inflicted 4-0 poundings. Earlier this season at Highbury, Middlesbrough were toyed with, lulled into a false sense of security by being allowed into a 3-1 lead, before Arsenal roared embarrassingly past them to a 5-3 final score.

Middlesbrough is A town forged by iron and steel, and its footballers have been hammered by Arsenal in recent years. On two of their previous three League visits before Saturday, Arsenal had inflicted 4-0 poundings. Earlier this season at Highbury, Middlesbrough were toyed with, lulled into a false sense of security by being allowed into a 3-1 lead, before Arsenal roared embarrassingly past them to a 5-3 final score.

But Saturday was different. Saturday, once Middlesbrough had replaced Mark Schwarzer, their regular goalkeeper who suffered back spasms in the warm-up, with a debutant, was a contest. "That's as close as we've come to Arsenal," said the Middlesbrough manager, Steve McClaren, after four years at the helm and now eight League defeats by Arsenal.

"I don't think anybody, with the team we had out, gave us a chance, but we had more than a chance. We controlled the game. And you don't get many chances on the break against Arsenal, yet we had two or three. And we've hit the bar. And kept Arsenal at bay - but for a ricochet they never looked like scoring today."

A litany of ill luck. Yet Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink might have changed that just three minutes after Robert Pires had scored Arsenal's 100th goal of the season. Philippe Senderos was caught dawdling on the ball in the centre circle. Szilard Nemeth sent Hasselbaink away, and with Kolo Touré closing him down crazily quickly, Middlesbrough's leading scorer elected to chip Jens Lehmann. The ball lobbed gently into the goalkeeper's hands, and the striker slumped stricken by dismay to the floor. "The humility of the guy - he has apologised to his team-mates," McClaren said. "But he's won many a game for us this season and will continue to do so."

Arsenal's winner was set up, as McClaren indicated, by a fortuitous deflection when Franck Queudrue's clearance bounced off Doriva to Pires. It came, in the 73rd minute, just as Middlesbrough were rolling Arsenal through the mill.

Chris Riggott and Gareth Southgate were shackling Thierry Henry, who was reduced to just one moment of extravagance when he clipped a cross towards the top corner in the 43rd minute. The real steel of the side, though, was in midfield where George Boateng, Ray Parlour and especially Doriva, who hit the bar with a wildly swerving shot, nailed down Patrick Vieira as Gilberto Silva stood like a gloved shadow beside him. But the goal, Pires' 13th of the season, drew Arsenal three points clear of Manchester United and two points closer to Chelsea at the top of the table.

Still, they are 11 points behind and their manager Arsène Wenger, who has an economics degree and a mathematical mind, realistically weighed up his chances of retaining the title. "I don't give up," he said, "but I over half concede. It is 80 per cent sure that Chelsea will be champions. Our confidence is high as in the last seven games nobody has made as many points as we have. Unfortunately, the season is soon over, because we slowly come back in the championship and I wish we could play until August. I have to call the Premier League tomorrow."

And his side must play an FA Cup semi-final at the weekend, to which Sol Campbell will add his own steely resolve.

Goal: Pires (73) 0-1.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Jones; Parnaby, Southgate, Riggott, Queudrue; Parlour (Ehiogu, 90), Boateng (Graham, 85), Doriva , Downing; Hasselbaink, Nemeth. Substitutes not used: Johnson (gk), Cooper, Kennedy.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Touré, Senderos, Cole; Fabregas, Vieira, Silva, Pires; Reyes (Bergkamp, 46), Henry. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Van Persie, Cygan, Eboué.

Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).

Booked: Middlesbrough Queudrue; Arsenal Lauren.

Man of the match: Doriva

Attendance: 33,874.

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