Stockport's night of sadness

Stockport County 0 Middlesbrough 2
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The Independent Online
It began as the biggest night in Stockport County's 114-year history but it finished with this Coca-Cola Cup semi-final slipping away from the Second Division side.

It will now take a surprise to surpass anything even in this season of shocks to deny Middlesbrough a place at Wembley. The Premiership team frequently looked ill at ease on a muddy, patched-up pitch, but slipped away from Edgeley Park with a two-goal lead to carry into the Riverside for the return leg on 12 March.

Mikkel Beck and Fabrizio Ravanelli were the scorers, breaching Stockport's obdurate defence in the last 18 minutes. It was a result that flattered Middlesbrough - not that it will bother them much.

It was a cruel ending for a club who moved earth if not heaven to make sure last night's match went ahead. Around pounds 12,000 was spent returfing a third of the pitch, money well spent because without the cosmetic work the heavy rain would almost certainly have put paid to last night's match as it did when they attempted to play last week.

Cup legend would have it that the less than perfect conditions would suit the underdogs who had already defeated Blackburn, West Ham and Southampton during their run to the semi-finals. Once Middlesbrough had survived the storms at the start of both halves, however, it was their Premiership pedigree that was paramount.

Alun Armstrong was prominent in both of Stockport's spells of command and on another night he might have had a hat-trick. His first attempt was too high after 31 minutes and when he improved his accuracy he was denied twice by fine saves from Mark Schwarzer.

The night looked as though it was going to belong to the Middlesbrough goalkeeper, who was making his debut after a pounds 1.25m transfer from Bradford City but, just when it seemed the visitors would settle for a draw, Beck and Ravanelli earned them much more.

Middlesbrough, their engines stoked by the irrepressible Emerson, had frequently looked dangerous on the counter-attack. Ravanelli was just wide with a chip in the closing minutes of the first half - and it was by the counter-punch that they got the breakthrough.

Stockport had been pressing hard when Neil Cox sent a pass through their left flank after 73 minutes. Beck slipped into the space and, having drawn Paul Jones towards him, he slipped the ball between the goalkeeper's legs and into the net.

Six minutes later Beck, raiding down the left, had a shot saved by Jones, who also managed to get in the way of Craig Hignett's attempt from the rebound. The ball bounced to Ravanelli, who also had an effort blocked on the line before he forced it in from close range.

Stockport County (4-4-2): Jones; Connelly, Flynn, Gannon, Todd; Durkan, Bennett, Marsden, Cavaco (Jeffers, 78); Angell, Armstrong. Substitutes not used: Mutch, Dinning.

Middlesbrough (4-1-3-2): Schwarzer; Cox, Festa, Pearson, Fleming; Emerson; Mustoe, Stamp, Hignett; Beck, Ravanelli. Substitutes not used: Kinder, Blackmore, Roberts (gk).

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).