With the euphoria of Saturday's late winner against Ipswich fresh in the memory, The Tigers headed to Middlesbrough and, despite a rotten record on Teesside, should've been in confident mood. City haven't won in Middlesbrough since 1986. This was my fourth trip to the Riverside. Tonight makes it four losses!
Steve Bruce made three changes from the Ipswich game with the three players who appeared as substitutes on Saturday and changed the game getting starting roles. There was no argument for leaving Chester out again. However while McLean and Proschwitz both did well at the weekend, leaving out Aluko was a mistake.
Tigers: 4-4-2 [G] Amos [D] Rosenior, Dawson, Chester, McShane [M] McKenna, Olofinjana, Elmohamady, Quinn [F] Proschwitz, McLean
City started brightly enough and passed the ball well without really threatening to harm the hosts. However once Boro took control after 6-8 minutes, they made genuine opportunities. It was the pattern the entire game took. Boro weren't outstanding but showed plenty of endeavour without the ball, kept a solid shape and have young mobile players who get the ball wide quickly and make options for the man in possession. A poor Andy Dawson pass allowed Reach to cut inside and force the first of several saves from Amos, diving low to his left. From the resulting corner, a Boro centre half was gifted a free header 6 yards out but Amos got down well again and the ball was scrambled clear. Two further Boro corners were whipped superbly by Leadbitter towards the far post, the first tipped over by Amos, the second caught by the 'keeper who had to shift his feet quickly to avoid carrying it over the line.
City enjoyed spells of possession in the half but failed to trouble the Boro defence. Proschwitz didn't receive much in the way of quality service but his general play was poor. Like most of the Tigers midfield, he was ponderous on the ball. A Stephen Quinn shot a couple of feet wide was the only effort on goal. Olofinjana bundled his way through leading to a half chance that Proschwitz spurned before Elmo made a mess of the rebound and the keeper beat McLean to the loose ball. The best City move of the half saw McLean collect Quinn's pass and feed a ball in behind Leadbitter for Proschwitz. From our angle it looked like Leadbitter fouled Proschwitz on the edge of the box but those better placed and, more importantly, the referee saw it as a good tackle.
Leadbitter was the danger at the other end for Boro. Because they had worked the ball wide so often, City began to guard against it, allowing Leadbitter room to shoot from distance. His first effort moved in the air and Amos could only parry with McShane clearing up. A second, viscous effort was pushed out too and as Haroun pounced on the rebound, Amos spread himself and saved at point blank range with his right boot. City made it to half time level. Rarely had we looked like scoring ourselves. There was no dynamism in midfield, too many passes sideways. When we worked good wide positions we crossed poorly and we didn't have Aluko to run at them from deep.
The Tigers were let off big time at the start of the second half. Another great corner was headed back across goal and George Friend headed off the bar from close range. We settled after that and probably enjoyed our best spell of the game, again without particularly worrying their defence. Unfortunately the way things have gone in the last month, we can even concede on the break away from home! Dawson's corner evaded McShane and Boro cleared. Friend carried the ball a long way and slid in Haroun who rounded Amos and scored [1-0]. The Boro fans were so delighted that some of them even woke up! It was another soft goal and given our lack of goal threat, it looked decisive.
Steve Bruce replaced Proschwitz with Aluko before we'd even kicked off. It wasn't enough to spark us into life. We had most of the ball but Boro kept their defensive shape and threatened consistently on the counter. A second goal was always coming. Breaking again they cut in from the left, Amos stopped the shot and then saved Haroun's follow up before Miller tapped in [2-0]. More criminal defending. McLean almost responded immediately, getting across the front of the defence and hooking Rosenior's cross inches wide of the far post. Simpson and Evans replaced Rosenior and McKenna with McLean moving to the right of midfield and Elmohamady to right back. It was too little too late in truth.
Boro continued to cause trouble on the counter attack but a combination of Amos saves, decent challenges from Chester and McShane and poor finishing kept the score down. City created one chance that would've given the noisy traveling support a little hope. Simpson slid Evans in behind on the left and he shot left footed against the post. The rebound fell to McLean a few yards out in front of an empty goal but he fired wide. In his defence, the ball came off the post quickly. He should probably still have scored. That was just about it. Despite a good chunk of possession, City failed to produce an effort that troubled goalkeeper Steele.
It's easy to be despondent after such a disappointing effort. However it's not a level of performance we've seen too often. Even the recent run of defeats came during some good performances, horrific defending apart. So the players deserve the chance to put things right before we write them off. Elmohamady crossed poorly tonight but had a fine game on Saturday. McKenna played a level below what we know he's capable of. Dawson and Rosenior are also well capable of better performances. Olofinjana frustrated with his lack of urgency on the ball. He passes well at times and his refusal to panic is admirable but with him and McKenna, it's a but pedestrian in the middle of the park. Only Amos, Quinn and Chester played well while McShane put in another good effort.
Proschwitz and McLean will have a hard time convincing Bruce that they deserve another start no matter how impressive they are off the bench. McLean was the better of the two and linked play well at times in the first half but offered little threat around the box. Proschwitz's performance resembled his early outings for us. He's not good enough outside the box, he doesn't help us to work attacking positions and when he does hold the ball up, he doesn't lay the ball off quickly or positively enough.
With Bristol City coming up on Saturday, the good news is that we surely can't be this bad again. The bad news is that we're notoriously bad on TV and our record at Ashton Gate makes Middlesbrough look like a happy hunting ground. We won't be unchanged. Of that I'm absolutely certain. There aren't many who can have too many complaints if they are benched for the trip. I won't mind at all if neither the Riverside Stadium or Ashton Gate are on next seasons fixture list!