WHILE the rest of Middlesbrough has been following the feats of local duo 'Journey South' closely, it is safe to assume the town's footballers have not been inspired by the pair's Saturday night singing.

As Boro's UEFA Cup group-stage campaign came to an undistinguished end at the Riverside last night, there was a distinct lack of anything approaching the X-Factor.

Indeed, with less than 10,000 supporters inside the stadium - the club's lowest attendance of the season - X-rated was a better way of describing the latest instalment in Boro's European campaign.

Ultimately, Massimo Maccarone's late double maintained the club's 100 per cent European record and ensured Boro would finish top of their group despite AZ Alkmaar's win in Holland.

The striker's second - a 25-yard bullet that scorched past a helpless Vitomir Vutov - was a goal to grace any occasion. Sadly, though, the rest of the evening's fare was considerably less momentous.

A sixth consecutive European clean sheet underlined the strength of Boro's defensive displays this season but, for large parts of the game, the Teessiders were strangely toothless in attack.

Maccarone's late brace was just about enough to silence the critics but, with sterner tests to come following this morning's knockout round draw, Boro will need to improve on last night's showing if they are to better last season's efforts.

With even Steve McClaren playing down the significance of topping Group D, it was no surprise that last night's supposed decider turned out to be something of a non-event.

Similarly, it was no surprise to see the Boro boss naming a severely weakened team ahead of Sunday's Premiership clash with Tottenham and next week's Carling Cup quarter-final with Blackburn.

Teenage midfielder Jason Kennedy made his first senior start alongside the experienced Doriva, while 18-year-old winger Adam Johnson pushed his claims as the heir to Stewart Downing's crown.

The pair acquitted themselves well during a largely uninspiring encounter but, for the most part, it was another of Boro's teenage contingent that caught the eye.

In the absence of both Gaizka Mendieta and Ray Parlour, James Morrison has become something of a first-team regular on the right of midfield and, while last night's display was hardly his best, the 19-year-old was the driving force behind most of the home side's most incisive attacking.

Displaying a welcome willingness to hug the right flank, Morrison helped fashion an inviting opening for Maccarone in the 12th minute, only for the Italian to shoot tamely at Vutov after the Litex defence had parted from his path.

Ten minutes later, and the Darlington-born dribbler was at it again, surging between Mihail Venkov and Alejandro Cichero on his way to the byline.

A more experienced head might have gone down for a penalty - Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink was imploring him to do just that - and, while Morrison's honesty in staying on his feet was commendable, his eventual pullback was rather less worthy of praise.

The unsuccessful outcome was in keeping with much of the evening, with Boro's obvious lack of motivation combining with Litex's general lack of adventure to produce an utterly underwhelming stalemate.

Litex might have lost just one of their previous 13 games but, having already joined Boro in the last 32, the Bulgarians were understandably reluctant to risk injury or suspension by taking any unnecessary risks.

Milivoje Novakovic dragged their only first-half opening wide of the target, although left winger Petar Zlatinov almost embarrassed Brad Jones with a speculative 35-yarder that the goalkeeper was forced to claw out from underneath his crossbar.

The visitors improved after the break - Boro's general lack of vigour undoubtedly playing into their hands - and Jones was forced into action twice in the space of a minute to keep the scoresheet blank.

He raced from his line to block Milivoje Novakovic's shot after the Litex striker had sprung a disorganised offside trap, before saving low to his right to keep out Petar Zlatinov's cleanly-struck half-volley.

Boro could arguably have had a penalty by that stage but, while Belgian referee Serge Gumienny wrongly ruled that Todor Palankov had fouled Hasselbaink outside the area, the home side had done little to merit taking the lead.

They was still little to suggest they were going to break the deadlock as the game entered its final ten minutes but, suddenly, Boro's best move of the game forced a breakthrough.

Johnson's trickery created space on the left, and Maccarone evaded his marker to convert the winger's precise curling cross with a deft diving header at the back post.

That was hardly in keeping with what had gone before and Maccarone's second, dispatched seven minutes later, was even more out of kilter with the rest of the evening's fare.

The Italian, who had hardly kicked the ball in the opening 80 minutes, drove towards the edge of the area before producing a ferocious drive that arrowed into the top left-hand corner.

It was a dramatic denouement the rest of the game hardly deserved.

McClaren admitted: "It's good to get through the group, but I have looked at the six teams who we can draw and I thought there must have been some sort of mistake.

"On paper at least, there are some big names in there.

"We know it's going to be tough but we will enjoy the draw and then put Europe to bed until February.''

Maccarone ensured Boro finished in pole position in Group D and McClaren added: "Funnily enough I was looking to freshen things up just before he scored his first and both Yakubu and Viduka were warming up. It's funny how things like that happen.

"Strikers can have quiet games but still come up trumps and that's exactly what happened with Massimo.''

Result: Middlesbrough 2, Liteks Lovetch 0.

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