Middlesbrough need to break bad habit

You could almost feel sorry for Middlesbrough that no one feels sorry for them. A Premiership club who buy big (pounds 26m) cannot expect much sympathy, but nothing is going right for them. Even the identity of their opponents is conspiring against them.

In last week's Coca-Cola Cup final, Leicester were portrayed as underdogs, an identity that did not sit entirely comfortably as they are above Boro in the Premiership table, but for tonight's FA Cup semi-final replay at Hillsborough there is no getting away from the fact: most of the nation is wishing for their demise. Britain is backing Second Division Chesterfield.

"The entire country seems to have taken us to their hearts," John Duncan, the Chesterfield manager, said. "We played at Brentford last week and we got cheered onto the pitch and off the pitch and during the match.

"It was fantastic that they felt associated with our performance and that neutral people were enthralled by us."

Which is hard on Middlesbrough, as their season of promise is collapsing round their ears. Six days ago, Bryan Robson's team were close enough to touch two cups and survival in the Premiership. Now, the Coca-Cola Cup is being toasted in Leicester, and on Saturday their fears of relegation deepened as Sunderland secured a first win on Teesside in 35 years. The identity of the only scorer was almost too cruel - Darren Williams, a former Boro trainee.

The problems do not end there by the Riverside. Alan Moore, the Republic of Ireland winger, is out of tonight's replay with a twisted ankle, sustained in a first-half challenge with Sunderland's Allan Johnston, while there are further doubts over the fitness of Gianluca Festa, Curtis Fleming and the goalkeeper, Mark Schwarzer.

Add the muscle-constricting tension of being the victims of the mother of all shocks should Chesterfield prevail, and Boro's state can be properly quantified. Under normal circumstances, Juninho, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Co would expect to deal with a Second Division side comfortably, but no one could describe what is happening on Teesside as normal.

Certainly not Robson, who hopes the prizes will lift his team rather than fear suppress it. "We have a really important run-in with a lot to play for," he said. "The lads will pick themselves up and there is the added bonus that we can still get to another Wembley cup final. At least Chesterfield will be going into the game with the same preparation as us. Sunderland had a six-day rest before [playing us]and look what we went through.

"We have to get into the winning habit quickly. If you are in winning mode, players enjoy their football, and we have got to get back into the winning mode. We are getting the chances but we are not putting them away at the moment, so we are always going to put ourselves under pressure because of that."

Their captain, Nigel Pearson, believes a desire to prove their critics wrong could help Boro out of their present difficulties. "There is still time for us to get it right, then we will be able to stick our fingers up at people who have had a go at us," he said.

Yet Middlesbrough would be ill-advised to assume that Chesterfield will be any easier to overcome at the second time of asking. Duncan has rested nine of the players who started the initial match at Old Trafford 10 days ago and remains confident that his team can become the first from outside the top two divisions to reach the final.

"I think it's a reasonable assumption that underdogs only get one crack at it and a lot of people think our chance has gone now," he said. "But we're aiming not to be like the rest. We've done a lot of things over the last few years that a lot of people didn't think possible - not just the cup run."

Duncan will give a fitness test to his goalkeeper, Billy Mercer, who came off at half-time against Millwall on Saturday with a thigh injury and was unable to train yesterday. Paul Holland, a midfielder, is also an injury worry but Sean Dyche, who missed Saturday's match with a heavy cold, is expected to be fit.

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