Villa shut door on Middlesbrough

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Middlesbrough 0 Aston Villa 2

Willing and eager after their enforced winter break, Aston Villa strolled comfortably to their fifth away win of the season courtesy of memorable first-half goals from Alan Wright and Tommy Johnson. In their first outing this side of Christmas, Villa tore apart a weakened, downcast Middlesbrough. Long before the finish, the Riverside Stadium rang to the jeers of the home fans, for the first time since they took up residence by the banks of the Tees four months ago.

Not that anyone could complain about the quality of Wright's 21st minute opener, a measured volley which dipped over the goalkeeper, Gary Walsh, from the left-hand corner of the box. It was the defender's first goal for the club since his pounds 1m move from Blackburn Rovers last March, and only the second of his career.

Number two, five minutes from the break, saw Johnson put the finishing touches to a delightful string of 16 passes. Trapping and spinning on Andy Townsend's centre, in the same movement, he beat Walsh with a low cross-shot.

Villa might even have had more. Johnson drove narrowly wide within 60 seconds of his goal and Dwight Yorke, relishing his return to duty, surprised Walsh with a 25-yard drive which thumped into the keeper's chest.

A fifth defeat in six games was some way short of the New Year pick-me- up sought by Bryan Robson, back on the sick list and with a disrepute charge hanging over him following a recent spat with an official at Blackburn.

Robson has built a team in his own image: uncompromising, hard-to-beat - and increasingly injury-prone. The player/manager, bedevilled by an old calf muscle complaint, was one of seven first teamers absent.

With leading marksmen Jan Age Fjortoft, Nick Barmby and Craig Hignett joining him on the sidelines, last night's XI could number just six Premier League goals between them this season, and rarely looked like improving on that tally.

It was Middlesbrough's misfortune that, of their two South Americans, it should be the Bolivian, Jaime Moreno, who received, and wasted, most of their possession.

When an opportunity did fall Juninho's way, thanks to John Hendrie's jinking run just past the hour mark, the Brazilian again showed that finishing is not the strongest part of his game.

Robson gave all three of his substitutes a run-out in the second half, but the course of the game was never going to alter.

Flattery and deception are charges frequently aimed at Villa, but on this form their manager, Brian Little, like half his Premier League counterparts, is entitled to dream.

Middlesbrough (5-3-1-1): Walsh; Fox, Pearson (Whelan, 73), Vickers, Liddle, Fleming (Moore, 64); Stamp, Pollock, Moreno; Juninho; Hendrie (Blackmore, 69).

Aston Villa (5-2-1-2): Bosnich; Charles, Ehiogu, Southgate, Scimeca, Wright; Draper, Townsend; Johnson; Milosevic, Yorke. Substitutes not used: Carr, Farrelly, Spink (gk).

Referee: M Bodenham (Looe, Cornwall).