Juninho ahead of his time

Middlesbrough 1 Juninho 53 Chelsea 0 Attendance: 29,811
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The Independent Online
There can be no finer sight in English football than Juninho in full flow, skipping and dancing through defences, playing implausible passes and making audacious tackles. And the tiny Brazilian decided this match with, of all things, a diving header.

For the sake of Middlesbrough's safety, that was just as well for during a tense first half he had created more than enough chances for his colleagues, with Mikkel Beck particularly culpable. That Boro were toothless can be explained by the absence of Fabrizio Ravanelli, who is in Italy receiving treatment on a hamstring. He will miss tomorrow's game against Nottingham Forest, while Boro's schedule takes them to court on Wednesday in an attempt to win back the three points docked for their non-appearance at Blackburn before Christmas.

Chelsea, too, lacked bite in the first half, with Mark Hughes, who is suffering from a slight strain, on the bench. As early as the ninth minute Juninho's delicate pass put Craig Hignett in space, and his low cross was shinned over his own bar by Frank Sinclair.

Two minutes later the Brazilian played another perfect pass into Hignett's path. His shot dribbled past Frode Grodas and struck the post. Beck followed in, only to be blocked by Erland Johnsen, while Juninho's attempt was stopped on the line by Steve Clarke before Beck finally blasted wide. But the Brazilian is human - in the 36th minute Hignett put him clear but Juninho allowed Grodas to push his shot away.

Chelsea offered nothing in reply. Gianluca Vialli was out of sorts and Gianfranco Zola was reduced to foraging on the edge of his own area, and it was left to Clarke, the sweeper, to act as playmaker. Ruud Gullit sent on Hughes after the break, and reverted to a flat back four. It had immediate effect, Hughes peeling away to leave room for Zola to feed Craig Burley, but Mark Schwarzer beat him to the ball.

In the 53rd minute Juninho swivelled his hips and danced between Dennis Wise and Roberto Di Matteo. As Burley slid in, he slipped the ball neatly to Beck on the left. The Dane dwelt too long but still Juninho found space to meet the eventual cross with his 5ft 5in frame fully extended. His flying header beat Grodas on his near post.

"I don't know what Juninho's running on at the moment," said Bryan Robson as his side's fourth consecutive league win moved them out of the relegation zone. "He isn't looking tired, he's keeping pace with the game and he's tackling back."

Chelsea, though, were not finished. In the 73rd minute, alone, Hughes slipped while lining up for a trademark swivel and slam and Di Matteo had two shots deflected for corners, the second of which appeared to strike Steve Vickers' hand. "Chelsea were not a team," said Gullit. "I expect more from the players than I saw today, and that upsets me."

The only real save Chelsea forced Schwarzer to make was in the 85th minute, when Zola's free-kick fell on the volley to Clarke. The free-kick, typically, was conceded by that all-round player Juninho.

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