Boro content to look ahead after progress

Mansfield Town 0 Middlesbrough 3

A STAG do is traditionally a precursor to a much bigger event, so after enjoying their away day in Mansfield at the weekend, Middlesbrough's players can now begin to dream of a much more momentous occasion at Wembley in June.

Defeating the Stags, a side 78 places below the Teessiders in the Football League rankings, is no guarantee of progression to the FA Cup final. But with the likes of Barnsley, Huddersfield and Preston still in today's fifthround draw, there is every chance of Middlesbrough's growing reputation as knock-out specialists being further embellished.

"Outside of the top four, our cup pedigree has been as good as anyone's in recent years," said Gareth Southgate, a manager who has now presided over five FA Cup victories over lowerleague opponents since replacing Steve McClaren 18 months ago.

"We're not thinking about the final at the moment, but if we can get through the next round, we might start dreaming about Wembley."

And if Middlesbrough's luck with the draw continues to hold, those dreams could yet become reality in the next four months.

Eight of the club's last 11 FA Cup ties have pitted them against opponents from outside the Premier League, but it is to Boro's considerable credit that they have made the most of their fortune and won all eight of those matches.

Mansfield became the latest lower-leaguers to suffer at the weekend, humbled but not humiliated as the Teessiders allied passion and professionalism to their superior passing game.

Dong-Gook Lee's 17th-minute opener settled any Middlesbrough nerves - the South Korean prodded home his second goal for the club from close range after David Wheater had turned Carl Muggleton's weak punch across the six-yard box - and Mansfield's fate was sealed when Jake Buxton headed George Boateng's cross into his own net three minutes from time.

In between times, the hosts asked questions of their opponents' willingness to withstand a fierce physical examination, but with Wheater and Robert Huth imperious at the heart of defence, Boro's commitment was never in question.

Mark Schwarzer was forced to tip former Boro trainee Michael Boulding's 35th-minute drive onto the crossbar, but in a fiery, whole-hearted encounter, the visitors' Premier League performers were willing to give as good as they got.

"It was important we repelled Mansfield's aerial threat," said Southgate.

"And I thought we did that.

The centre-halves were very strong physically, and they combined pace and composure on the ball with aggression."

A combination that explains Southgate's willingness to sanction Jonathan Woodgate's controversial departure from the Riverside.

There are a number of factors behind Woodgate's impending exit, chief among them the 28- year-old's disappointment at being overlooked for the captain's armband, but he would not be going anywhere this month if Southgate did not feel he possesses two other centre-halves with superior skills at their disposal.

Repelling a Mansfield side that has scored just 25 goals in 25 League Two matches this season is hardly proof that Wheater and Huth have what it takes to guarantee Boro's defensive stability in the future, but in the club's last three games, the pair have displayed a solidity and understanding that augurs well.

"They are as threatening in the opposition box as they are in ours," Southgate added, and it was just as well they were on Saturday because while Lee opened the scoring before the break, the South Korean looked more out of his depth than any of his League Two opponents.

He failed to hold up the ball in his lone striker role, and one firsthalf miss, in which Lee directed a six-yard header embarrassingly wide of the upright, epitomised the paucity of his performances since he left Pohang Steelers last January.

"My contract is up at the end of the season, but nothing has been decided yet," said the 28-year-old.

"We'll talk about it then". Given Southgate's response to an inquiry about the striker's future - "It depends on what he does between now and the end of the season" - it is unlikely the conversation will be a long one.

Middlesbrough are hardly over-run with strikers, of course, and for all that the outcome of Saturday's game was never in doubt, the fact that the visitors recorded just one shot on target against a side mired in the relegation zone at the bottom of League Two was alarming.

The impending arrival of Afonso Alves should add potency to the Boro attack but, with the Brazil international likely to need time to settle following a multi-million pound move from Heerenveen, the eagerly-awaited return of Mido could prove every bit as crucial.

Mido produced a 20-minute cameo after leaving the substitutes' bench at Field Mill, his first senior appearance since suffering a pubic injury in late October.

The African looked understandably rusty, but he was involved in the build-up to Boro's second goal and will provide a much-needed physical presence once he gets a run of two or three games under his belt.

"It's been a very frustrating few months," said Mido.

"It's been an up and down time because, last month, there was a point where I felt good and I thought I could make a comeback, but then I had a setback.

"I couldn't really do anything for days at a time, but I'm glad to be playing again now. I played for 20 minutes and felt okay, so hopefully I can take things from there."

Mido's former employers, Tottenham, are preparing for an appearance in the final of the Carling Cup, and having left White Hart Lane last summer, the 24- year-old is confident Middlesbrough have a strong enough squad to achieve similar success.

"Spurs have done well to get to the Carling Cup final," he said.

"But just like they have the players to do that, we have the players to have an equally good FA Cup run.

"It's a very important competition for us because it's a chance to play in Europe next season. It's difficult to do that through the league, so we're looking forward to the draw."

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