Full-time: Bolton 1 Middlesbrough 2
THERE are those who will quite rightly argue that promotion should not even be mentioned in August, but if this is the season when Middlesbrough are to finally deliver in the Championship then it is nights like these which could prove decisive.
Boro were not at their best in defeating Bolton 2-1 at the Macron Stadium. Yet they were resilient, determined and enjoyed a huge slice of good fortune on their way to claiming a second win from three league games to start the new campaign.
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After the frustrations of losing narrowly at Leeds United at the weekend, Aitor Karanka was chasing a response from his players and he got one. Even if it might not have been delivered in the style he demands.
There must have been more than a few concerns when Craig Davies powered in a 25th minute penalty to put Bolton, still searching for a first win in the league, ahead after Seb Hines had tripped him in the area.
But then after Redcar’s David Wheater, a born and bred Middlesbrough fan playing his former club for the first time since leaving in 2011, made the costly mistake of handling in the Bolton area seconds before half-time, the visitors got the lucky break they craved. Grant Leadbitter converted and the stage was set for a second half shoot-out.
Middlesbrough took their time to settle in the second half, but then controlled things and deservedly got the winner when lively substitute Adam Reach played in Kike to hit his third goal in four games since his move from Real Murcia.
Karanka’s intention beforehand was to freshen things up a little and that is what he did and it looked as if it could backfire for a large period. What was not expected was the decision to leave out Daniel Ayala as one of three changes to the side defeated at Elland Road.
And, despite a solid enough start, it was Ayala’s replacement Hines caught out when he tripped Davies as he charged between him and Kenneth Omeruo to reach the Middlesbrough box.
When the Bolton striker, who dispatched the penalty with power and precision in to Tomas Mejias’ top left corner, fell to the ground, referee Steven Martin could easily have sent Hines off. Instead he decided Omeruo was close enough to cover, so the defender escaped with a caution.
But Davies’ well taken penalty meant Middlesbrough did not survive falling behind for the second time inside four days and after that the Teesside club were left with the challenge of showing the character required to become promotion contenders.
Bolton had slowly worked their way in to the match after a bright start from Middlesbrough. Inside the first few minutes of the night, Kike had curled an effort over and but for a close offside decision would have gone close again after some neat link-up play with Emilio Nsue. Lee Tomlin also saw a stinging drive land safely in the arms of goalkeeper Adam Bogdan.
The decision to hand Nsue a full Championship debut appeared harsh on youngster Reach and the summer signing from Real Mallorca struggled to really impose himself on proceedings.
Fellow recent recruit Adam Clayton, preferred ahead of Dean Whitehead in the middle, always looked hungry to get on the ball along with Leadbitter but Middlesbrough’s attacks tended to break down in the final third.
It was in that area of the pitch where the passing was often sloppy and on far too many occasions simple passes missed their intended target and that allowed Bolton to grow in confidence after a shaky start.
The Trotters had already had a couple of wayward efforts at goal before Davies earned and then converted his penalty – and that only helped the home side to find a greater resolve in a defensive sense as half-time approached.
Tomlin, and his team-mates, were incensed moments before the break when he fell to the floor after appearing to be felled on a run in to the box. No penalty was awarded but then Wheater made up for it seconds later.
A routine ball in to the area was going nowhere, but following Kike’s flick the Rockliffe academy graduate moved his arm in the direction of the ball and the linesman raised his flag. Leadbitter took charge from the spot and sent Bogdan the wrong way.
After being given such a lifeline at that stage when it seemed they would be trailing at the restart, Karanka kept things as they were for the second half in the hope of seeing greater urgency and threat, particularly from Adomah and Nsue down the flanks.
After Lee Chung-Yong’s volley flew inches wide, it soon became clear to the boss that something needed to change, so Reach was introduced on the left to enable Adomah to replace Nsue on the right.
Reach had one of the best efforts of the night when his drilled drive from a difficult angle brought a fantastic flying save out of Bogdan which earned a corner; seconds later the keeper also held another distance drive from Tomlin.
The arrival of Reach on to the stage proved perfect as twelve minutes before the end he was in the right place to flick the ball in to the path of Kike to nip in and lift beyond Bogdan to net the winner.
It might not have been the prettiest of victories, and there was a scare or two late on including a disallowed Neil Danns goal for offside, but Middlesbrough did just enough to see it through.