Toothless Villa are unpicked by Zenden

Aston Villa 0 Middlesbrough 2

Given their near identical records - nine goals scored, 11 points won at three o'clock yesterday - it was easy to assume these sides would be much of a muchness, but the evidence on the field said something very different. Goalscoring may be no more Middlesbrough's forte than it is Villa's but there the similarities end.

Inspired by the energy and inventiveness of Boudewijn Zenden and Gaizka Mendieta, Boro had the look of a side about to leave an indifferent start behind them. Villa, by contrast lacking both drive and ideas, are in danger of being dragged into a season-long struggle against relegation.

It is something David O'Leary acknowledges with stark honesty, only too aware of the financial constraints under which he must work. "There are a group of teams who are always likely to be in a position where a couple of defeats could drag them into trouble and Villa are part of that group," the Villa manager said.

"I was upbeat after our point at Newcastle last week but we were poor today. It is going to be a difficult season but I knew it would be that way when I took the job.

"We have lost six or seven players since I came here and brought in only two. There is a little money available but mainly it is about getting through this season."

Middlesbrough, thanks to chairman Steve Gibson's continuing willingness to dip into his pockets, are in a far different position. After Malcolm Christie broke a leg on the training pitch last week, Gibson promised to sanction signing another striker when the transfer window opens in January, although yesterday it did not seem an urgent priority.

Boro's goals accurately reflected their superiority. In front after half-an-hour, when Zenden temporarily deserted his position on the left to head home Franck Queudrue's cross, they seldom looked like conceding an equaliser and the gift of an another goal four minutes into the second half effectively assured them of victory.

Again, Zenden was the key player, his pace on the left leaving Lee Hendrie in his wake as he headed towards goal. It put him in a threatening position, although O'Leary was less than pleased to see Hendrie resort to clipping the Dutchman's heels to give away a penalty. Michael Ricketts sent Thomas Sorensen the wrong way from the spot, after which the fans who had booed Villa off at half-time now groaned in resignation.

"It was a stupid penalty to give away," said O'Leary, who hauled Hendrie off in a double substitution two minutes later. "After that we never looked like creating anything." Steve McClaren, by contrast, felt his side were always liable to score on the break and believes the only way ahead is up.

"With Ricketts leading the line, Juninho tucking in behind and Doriva and George Boateng looking solid in the middle, I felt we looked very balanced," he said. "It gave Mendieta and Zenden a bit more freedom and all in all it was a good performance.

"We have had six wins in the last nine games," he added, "and we can start looking forward from here."

Aston Villa 0 Middlesbrough 2
Zenden 30, Ricketts pen 49

Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 29,898

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