Smiling assassin certain Boro can have last laugh

Boateng looks forward to reunion with Viduka and claims Southgate's men can confound critics with top-half finish
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The Independent Football

It's a case of friends reunited at the Riverside today, though for Mark Viduka and the Teesside public, the reunion may be a little too soon to be comfortable. Viduka not only left Middlesbrough this summer, he joined Newcastle. That could irritate a Boro fan, but when Yakubu'smidweek departure to Everton is then added, fret might take over. Between them, Viduka and Yakubu scored 60 per cent of Boro's goals last season.

Hence today marks something of a new Middlesbrough era, and those thinking a North-east derby might not be the ideal start should seek out Boro's captain, George Boateng. "What are we going to do?" he asked. "Sulk?"

Like a lot of what Boateng says, the words came with a smile. Boro's linesman-assisted win at Fulham has helped the mood internally and Boateng, who seems to be one of life's optimists, said of the pessimism lapping outside the doors of the club: "Mentally we are not fighting to stay up, mentally we are fighting to see if we can finish in the top half. Last year we were 12th."

But behind his happy defiance, there is realism. Gareth Southgate may have said on Friday that he is "not bothered" about signing a new striker in the coming week to replace Yakubu, but Boateng, talking in a different room, said that another forward could be the difference between top half and bottom half, between finishing above Newcastle or below. Sceptics will be a lot harsher than a club captain is allowed to be publicly.

"If we get another top striker I can see us finishing in the top 10, but it all depends on the striker," Boateng said. "They [Viduka and Yakubu] were not just part of the team, they were the front-liners, they led the team. The whole team was working to get the ball to them.

"I know it's going to be hard because they scored the majorityof goals, and so we hope people like Mido, Jérémie [Aliadière], Tuncay [Sanli], Stewie Downing, Dong Gook, they will be the creative players. The pressure will be on them. It's crunch time for them."

Those are robust words. But Boateng's manner is not intimidating. As he said: "I remember the first time I invited my neighbour to a game and she and her husband didn't really know too much about how I played. Afterwards she said to me: 'Next time I come to your house, I bring my dog'. On the pitch I'm totally different to what I am off it."

If anything, Boateng's tone towards Viduka and Yakubu is forgiving. Yakubu, he said, "was never a problem to us in the team, we'll miss him, a real joker. Mark? Mark, I was close to, a very mature person, very laid-back, no stress, everything's calm to Mark. Sometimes he was breathtaking to watch, beautiful. It's a shame we lost him. I believe that he wanted to stay but that the contract wasn't sorted out soon enough and he got other offers. It's a big adversity to lose Mark."

Having been at Boro for more than five years – and in the Premier League almost a decade – Boateng, 31, has the experience to place recent developments in context. It is only 15 months since Boro were in a Uefa Cup final.

"I understand if people don't see us as high-profile as then, but we are regrouping, it is transition. I can name you 10 top internationals who have left in the past two years, so I know that we are going to find it hard.

"I agree, I know the Premier League has improved. From 1997 to now it's 110 per cent better. When I look at the fixtures now I think, 'Ooh, I don't fancy that'. It's a lot harder.

"When I came, teams were not full of internationals; now when you play Wigan, they have Melchiot, Landzaat, Heskey. I thought 'Wow', and that's Wigan. The League is 10 times better.

"You cannot disrespect any team. We as a club will probablybe in the shadow of Newcastle this season because of the squad they have, but the challenge to us is: can we finish above them?"

Just for one day would fulfil Southgate's request yesterday for "heroes". Newcastle, meanwhile, will have funds available to strengthen that squad even further after unloading the unhappy Albert Luque to Ajax.

There is another friend Boateng sees today, Geremi. At kick-off they will shake hands as rival captains having both arrived at Boro in the same week in 2002. Geremi only stayed one season, but Boateng will not easily forgethim. "Everything about Geremi was just... pleasant. Even the way he talked was pleasant, the way he dressed.

"One day he came in wearing his African cloth saying: 'This is how I dress in Africa'. We said: 'What?' Then he came in wearing a suit. We said: 'Where are you going? To the office?' Hejust laughed. But he was tremendous here, he had everything. Newcastle have gained a very valuable player."

Teesside's concern is that Newcastle have gained more than one.