Middlesbrough 1 Queen's Park Rangers 0
Given that one of them will shortly learn that it is he who is to be sacrificed at the gifted feet of Juninho, this was not a good time for any Middlesbrough player to under-perform. Just as well, then, that they all did so together.
Or, rather, most of them. Delete from the list Steve Vickers, superb at the heart of a currently impenetrable defence, and Neil Cox, who looks to have a good idea of how a wing-back needs to function. Otherwise, from the rest, it was a not-quite-there sort of day.
So who will be the unlucky one? Naturally, no one within the club is giving a clue, but the sages without point to Craig Hignett, which seems a bit unfair, really, in the light of the way Hignett has complemented Nick Barmby's successful introduction to the side. There is his goals tally, too, which Saturday's penalty raised to five for the season.
Hignett is aware of the talk but prefers to regard the new boy's coming in positive terms. Indeed, so keen is he to see Juninho flourish, regardless of the consequences for his own future, that he made an appeal for his protection on the field, fearing that bemused opponents will find frustration getting the better of them.
"He's built like a whippet and he will be just too quick for some defenders," Hignett said. "I just hope that referees will appreciate him and protect him.
"As for my own position, I know what people are saying and obviously there is a question mark over me. But I don't see myself as the odd man out and I'll do as much as I can to make it impossible for the manager to leave me out."
If his work permit comes through, Juninho may cause the axe to fall at Old Trafford next Saturday, which would leave Wednesday's Coca-Cola Cup tie at Crystal Palace as the last opportunity for an anxious man to cement his place.
Saturday's result maintained Middlesbrough's extraordinary start. It is their fifth straight win and fifth consecutive game, in all competitions, in which they have not conceded a goal; but, statistics apart, there was not much to enthuse about. Unforced errors abounded and Rangers, for whom Trevor Sinclair was again hugely impressive, ought to have taken a point.
Behind from the 14th minute, the Londoners survived a second penalty early in the second half (which Hignett, somewhat unprofessionally, allowed Jan Age Fjortoft to take - and miss) and thereafter took charge. An equaliser seemed certain in the 66th minute when Sinclair's chip came back off the bar to Daniele Dichio but the young striker, faced with an open goal, headed over the top, after which there was no cheering Ray Wilkins, the manager, with kind words. "People keep saying we are playing well," he said, "but we are losing points."
Goal: Hignett pen (14) 1-0.
Middlesbrough (5-2-2-1): Walsh; Cox, Pearson, Vickers, Whyte (Whelan, 53), Morris; Pollock, Mustoe; Hignett (Hendrie, 81), Barmby; Fjortoft. Substitute not used: Moore.
Queen's Park Rangers (5-3-2): Sommer; Bardsley, Yates, Ready, Maddix, Brevett (Gallen, 77); Barker, Holloway, Impey; Sinclair, Dichio. Substitutes not used: Wilkins, Challis.
Referee: M Reed (West Midlands).Reuse content