Middlesbrough managed to upstage Chelsea yesterday but they did so by being an embarrassment. In conceding five goals in just over an hour, four in 16 second-half minutes, Boro at times displayed a lack of the basic competitive spirit. The players and their manager, Gareth Southgate, were rightly harangued by Teesside's faithful. This was as joyless as the bitter times under Steve McClaren, and Southgate described it as "a humiliation. It might have been eight".
He got that right. Inevitably there was a rush to acclaim Chelsea and see this as symbolic of a title charge but this was as much a walkover as a knockout. Luiz Felipe Scolari again placed Juliano Belletti alongside Frank Lampard in midfield, and the Brazilian responded with a 30-yarder after 51 minutes that resembled Alex's strike from the same position here last year.
Belletti has scored the winner in a European Cup final for Barcelona so this was small beer for him, but it was one of two memorable goals from Chelsea. Lampard's header 12 minutes later was another. It is six games now since Chelsea conceded a goal, and that was to Manchester United.
For Boro, it was a day they may struggle to forget. "A very humbling experience," said Southgate, who heard the jeers of the main stand as he stood on the touchline. "They're in a different league to us but we made bad mistakes, we were edgy in possession and didn't look like we had belief. We were like rabbits caught in the headlights."
From the off, nothing felt right. Not enough people turned up on time for a start. The Riverside ached with empty seats, and though many of those were filled gradually, a placid tone had been set. With warm autumn sunshine flowing, this was the opposite of hostile.
Chelsea settled in. Some native aggression, allied to injuries and the international break, should have been a recipe for an upset, but the first ingredient was missing and Boro have only themselves to blame for that.
In fielding John Obi Mikel in front of a back four featuring a restored John Terry, Scolari may have been anticipating early home pressure. It did not materialise. A team does not need to be dirty to be physical but even in those first important minutes, Middlesbrough allowed Chelsea's players the room to pass. The League leaders are not bad at this.
With Florent Malouda and Salomon Kalou fluid movers on the flanks and Lampard directing in midfield, the visitors found their rhythm quickly. It was only 14 minutes before the lead was taken. Belletti began the move with a sweeping pass to the overlapping Wayne Bridge. His deep cross was not dealt with by David Wheater and Belletti's subsequent shot hit Wheater and Gary O'Neil. Kalou pounced to snap the ball in from seven yards. Ross Turnbull had no chance.
Somehow it was only 1-0 at half-time though Lampard's miss from four yards in the 24th minute accounted for that. Carlo Cudicini made no real saves in either half. Boro required rousing but less than two minutes after the interval Malouda was clean through on Turnbull only to squander the opening. No matter. Four minutes on and Malouda eased a pass to Belletti. Unchallenged, Belletti teed up himself and let rip a screamer that hit the top corner. What semblance of a contest existed evaporated at that.
Two minutes later, a Kalou shot deflected off Wheater to make it three and then Lampard ran onto a delicious chip from Kalou to guide a header – again unchallenged – into the corner again. It was a rout completed after 67 minutes when Turnbull fluffed a drive from Nicolas Anelka and Malouda slid in to score the rebound.
Did it send out a message to the rest, Scolari was asked. "No, to me," he replied. "We have to improve."
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