Final Score: Middlesbrough 1, Blackburn Rovers 0
LUKAS JUTKIEWICZ was the hero when Middlesbrough came away from Ewood Park victorious in September, so the sight of the striker’s name on the team-sheet yesterday could only mean trouble for Blackburn Rovers.
Jutkiewicz scored an impressive double when the sides clashed a little over three months ago to give Middlesbrough a surprise three points and end Rovers’ early season unbeaten run.
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Three months on Tony Mowbray had the striker to thank again after his 68th minute goal gave Boro a vital win in the promotion race, keeping them third behind Hull City and Cardiff City.
A lot has changed since that Friday night in September, with Henning Berg replacing Steve Kean in charge, but Rovers have struggled to maintain their own fight to return to the Premier League under their former defender.
Berg’s men came to the Riverside without a win in five games and sitting five points behind Millwall in the last play-off place.
The standings might have suggested a more comfortable afternoon for the Teessiders, but that was hardly the case as Boro struggled to break down a resilient Blackburn.
In fact, Boro’s opponents played more like a side that is in the mix at the top and Mowbray’s men had to battle hard for this win.
Boro have made giant strides at home this season, but yesterday’s performance brought back the nervy feeling that supporters know all too well from the last two seasons until Jutkiewicz finished from just inside the area.
The Boxing Day match did see Rhys Williams make his long-awaited return after four months out with an ankle injury, and Boro had the Australian international and Jonathan Woodgate to thank as well.
The hosts didn’t get off to an ideal start and within 30 seconds of kick-off they could have been behind when Colin Kazim-Richards latched on to Martin Olsson’s cross. But his effort hit the post and bounced along the goal line and away.
It was an early let-off for the Teessiders, who still appeared to be digesting their Christmas dinner when Olsson found space down the left.
Berg’s side settled into the game far quicker than their hosts and were passing the ball around reasonably well, but without really creating anything clear-cut.
Emmanuel Ledesma saw a 25-yard free-kick easily collected by Jake Kean, before Jutkiewicz poked a sliding shot wide after beating the Rovers keeper to the ball.
Although they hadn’t had the bulk of possession, Boro’s front three of Jutkiewicz, Marvin Emnes and Scott Mc- Donald were combining well when the hosts broke forward.
Boro’s lethargic start didn’t inspire the Riverside crowd, but the near 23,000 in attendance did come to life when George Friend broke down the left and cut inside.
But the left-back could only direct his shot wide of the near post.
The increase in noise undoubtedly spurred Boro on and another chance came when Ledesma slipped Emnes through, but Rovers defender Scott Dann did well to get a foot in before the Dutch striker could pull the trigger.
Blackburn have struggled to maintain their early season form, but they looked dangerous on the break. Kazim- Richards skipped past Andre Bikey and tried to play in Rhodes, but Boro did enough to clear the danger.
Boro had an encouraging spell before the break with McDonald going close after he chested the ball down and struck a first-time shot into Kean’s hands. Then the Rovers keeper made a double save from Ledesma and Mc- Donald.
The hosts hadn’t started well and they almost finished the first half in similar fashion when Joshua King skipped past Hoyte on the left and played the ball across goal.
The ball deflected off Bikey on to the post, but Steele was able to get his hands on it before Rhodes, who was racing in, could get a touch.
Jutkiewicz did have a shot tipped over by Kean moments later, but the score remained goalless when the teams went in at half-time.
In the second half Rovers were again first to create something when Danny Murphy’s shot was saved by Steele.
The opening goal finally came in the 68th minute when Jutkiewicz finished past Kean after good work from McDonald, who had broken forward after receiving the ball from Friend.
McDonald set up Jutkiewicz, who touched the ball across the box before hitting a low drive to the right of Kean.
Rovers seemed to suffer from a lack of confidence after the goal, but they were still a threat on the break with Jason Lowe seeing his 20-yard shot go wide on 80 minutes.
It was a nervy last ten minutes for the home side, who missed several chances to double their advantage.
McDonald was the biggest culprit and he could have had a hat-trick had it not been for poor finishing.
Kean denied the Australian after he had cut inside from the right of the penalty area, before he shot wide from an unmarked position after Hoyte had sent a dangerous cross in from the right.
There was a late scare for the hosts when Steele saved Ruben Rochina’s free-kick, but Boro held on for the three points.