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Mowbray’s men need to take heart from crowd
MORE than 25,000 Middlesbrough fans were back inside the Riverside Stadium and giant flagbearers waved messages of ‘We Shall Overcome’ more in hope rather than expectation beforehand.
And for 45 minutes the Boro supporters, possibly even manager Tony Mowbray, dared to believe that the once proud Premier League club still battling to return to the big stage could seal a place in the FA Cup quarter-final at Chelsea’s expense.
But Rafael Benitez, for all his problems at Stamford Bridge, successfully negotiated Chelsea’s expensively assembled squad of millionaires through to a date at Old Trafford despite claims of dressing room unrest.
Ultimately the outcome may have disappointed, but at least it felt like the good times were back at Middlesbrough again – if only it was like that every week.
Despite the obvious gulf in class between a team sitting seventh in the Championship and the reigning European champions, a crowd of a 27,856 seemed to give Mowbray’s men an extra lift.
Chelsea, who have lost their grip on third in the topflight and sit 19 points shy of leaders Manchester United, have their problems and the intensity in which Middlesbrough pressed seemed to heighten those for much of the night.
In winning only 13 of their previous 26 matches under Benitez since taking over at Stamford Bridge in November, there were plenty of signs to encourage Middlesbrough in the opening half.
Despite boasting a £50m striker in Fernando Torres who cost almost five-times Boro’s annual wage bill, Jason Steele in the Middlesbrough goal was rarely under threat during that time.
In terms of financial figures and individual achievements there were mismatches all over the pitch.
A young striker released by non-league Darlington 18 months ago in the shape of Curtis Main was having to compete with former England skipper John Terry in the air.
Winger Mustapha Carayol, a £300,000 buy from League Two club Bristol Rovers, had the task of threatening £27m full-back Paulo Ferreira.
Such comparisons could be picked out all over the pitch.
Yet you would not have thought the two clubs were a million miles apart when the whistle of referee Martin Atkinson brought an end to the first half FA Cup action.
Academy graduate Steele, the Middlesbrough goalkeeper, had actually had a quieter opening period than the world-renowned and Czech Republic international shot-stopper Petr Cech.
And it took a slice of luck off Torres’ right shoulder to finally find a breakthrough six minutes into the second half, when Ramires’ shot deflected off his team-mate before flying into Steele’s top left.
Benitez brought on £32m recruit Eden Hazard to wrap things up by laying on a brilliant second goal for Victor Moses, while Mowbray had the cheaper options of loanee Ishmael Miller and £100,000 man Merouane Zemmama to use in a bid to close the gap.
It never looked likely from the moment the first goal went in, although Middlesbrough should take confidence from the desire and composure on the ball they showed with them ahead of an arduous Championship run-in.
Any hope there had been around the Riverside for a night to remember like so many others from the not too distant past had disappeared in to the Teesside air.
If only there was a similar swell of numbers for the remaining six home dates of the season.
It could be the difference between Middlesbrough sealing a trip to Wembley after all – via the play-offs – and the prospect of spending a fifth year outside the Premier League.
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