Middlesbrough fearful of the big slide

The poor form of Juninho is just one problem facing Bryan Robson. Ian Potts reports
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Rather like their soulless new ground, incongruously sited among the industrial decay by the banks of the Tees, Middlesbrough are beginning to appear as if they are all show and no substance.

The doubling of their Brazilian quota, with the impending arrival of the World Cup veteran, Branco, should shore up a defence which has appeared increasingly accident-prone, but may not stop the name of Norwich City being whispered in the burger bars of the Riverside Stadium.

Every year it happens. A side, seemingly set for great heights and usually over-performing beyond all the expectations of August, suddenly bash, full-steam, into the buffers. Twelve months ago it was the Canaries. Flying high in seventh spot on the opening day of 1995, they managed to win just one more game all season and plummeted 13 places before crash-landing back in the First Division. After six successive Premiership defeats, Middlesbrough are on course to be this year's fall guys.

Having peaked with a 4-1 home win over Manchester City two months ago, which saw them edged out of third position only by Tottenham's superior goal difference, Sunday's 5-0 shocker at Stamford Bridge means Bryan Robson now only need glance over his shoulder to see the relegation hostilities in full swing.

Yet the similarities between Norwich's nosedive and Middlesbrough's plight are largely statistical. Whereas City fans held the chairman, Robert Chase, largely to blame for their demise, with a policy of non-replacement which deprived them of their leading performers, the Teessiders' chairman, the self-made millionaire, Steve Gibson, has been only too happy to sanction another spending spree.

After a couple of spectacular early season moves into the market, which saw Nick Barmby and Juninho arrive at a joint cost of pounds 10m, Robson suprisingly preferred to bide his time, asking his youngsters to steer the club through a horrific spate of injuries. The trio of Steve Vickers, Derek Whyte and captain Nigel Pearson, who formed their defensive backbone, last appeared together on Boxing Day, each of his regular midfielders has spent time on the treatment table, and the return from a long-term lay-off by the full-back, Curtis Fleming, and last season's top scorer, John Hendrie, proved fleeting. To date 27 players have donned the Cellnet- sponsored shirt this season - as many as played in the whole of last term. Hence the name of Craig Liddle, two years ago whiling away his time in the Northern League with Blyth Spartans, has appeared on the team sheet as regularly as Brazil's Player of the Year.

Reports from Italy last week suggested Middlesbrough had offered pounds 8.8m for the Lazio striker, Alen Boksic, and pounds 7m for the Internazionale full- back Roberto Carlos, but Robson returned from his fact-finding mission to claim: "I might look there again the summer." Instead he turned to Branco, a soul-mate for Juninho who doubtless made his compatriot feel every bit of his 31 years by recalling: "I first saw him in the 1986 World Cup when I was 12. He was one of my heroes..."

Not that Branco, or Middlesbrough, will be seeing much of their boy wonder over the next few weeks. Together with his Bolivian team-mate, Jaime Moreno, he will be off to Argentina after next Tuesday's FA Cup fourth-round replay at Wimbledon, joining his country's Under-23 squad for the Olympic Games qualifying tournament which runs for 16 days from 18 February. "We knew this was on the cards, but I'd still rather have him, and have to cope with these problems, than not have him at all," said Robson, whose biggest worry has been his star signing's loss of his initial sparkle.

Undeniably a gifted player, Juninho's incisive edge appears to have been blunted by the frequent absence through injury of Barmby and Craig Hignett, the two attacking midfielders he has linked up with to best effect.

In addition, the quality of his finishing has been surprisingly poor. In a gimmick no doubt culled from his days as a Radio One DJ, the Riverside's announcer, Mark Page, blasts out a few bars of the Queen anthem Another One Bites The Dust every time a home goal is scored. It is a chorus of approval Juninho has earned just twice in 15 appearances.

When his back five picked itself and boasted the meanest defensive record in the Premiership, before injuries and suspensions took their toll, Robson could afford to gloss over his side's lack of goals. That the much-travelled Paul Wilkinson should suddenly find himself back in favour, after a year in the wilderness, says much about Middlesbrough' s lack of attacking options.

Perhaps the biggest miss, though, has been Robson himself, on the sidelines for the past month with sciatica. Much as he might hope to be as big an influence from the dug-out as Kevin Keegan is, up the road at Newcastle, it is on the pitch where he is still most needed. Even if he did turn 39 last month.

For a club which almost went out of business 10 years ago, crisis would be too strong a description of Middlesbrough's current plight. Though if the Magpies make it seven defeats in a row down by the Riverside tomorrow, the word will not be too far from most people's thoughts.

Middlesbrough's highs and lows

Date Opponents Res Pos

19 Aug Arsenal (A) 1-1 8th

9 Sept Bolton (A) 1-1 12th

23 Sept Man C (A) 1-0 7th

15 Oct Sheff Wed (A) 1-0 4th

21 Nov Spurs (H) 0-1 9th

(First home defeat, in seventh Premiership game at Riverside Stadium)

25 Nov Liverpool (H) 2-1 6th

9 Dec Man City (H) 4-1 4th

16 Dec Blackburn (A) 0-1 6th

23 Dec West Ham (H) 4-2 5th

26 Dec Everton (A) 0-3 6th

(Start of current six-match losing run)

30 Dec Nottm Forest (A) 0-1 7th

1 Jan Aston Villa (H) 0-2 9th

13 Jan Arsenal (H) 2-3 11th

20 Jan Southampton (A) 1-2 12th

4 Feb Chelsea (A) 0-5 12th