It’s been more than half a year since Middlesbrough went to Anfield and almost secured the biggest shocker of the season. Sure, it was only the second match of the campaign, but Boro never wins the crucial match.
Manager Gareth Southgate predicted a trip to Europe before the season. After an opening victory at the Riverside against Tottenham Hotspur, fans of the northwest club sensed maybe this could be their year.
The first 85 minutes at Liverpool were nothing short of brilliant.
Middlesbrough played stellar defense in the first half, keeping Liverpool from testing young goalkeeper Ross Turnbull. Regular keeper Brad Jones had been injured during warmups. Liverpool, however, controlled possession, keeping Boro from having any real opportunities.
The clubs entered half time scoreless.
Boro went a goal ahead in the 70th minute on a Mido shot from about 30 meters out, putting the Teessiders less than half an hour from their first away victory against Liverpool since 1976. But Liverpool fought back, nearly equalizing twice before the Red’s Jamie Carragher issued a cross that bounced off Boro’s Emmanuel Pogatetz and into the back of the net in the 86th minute.
With just seconds left in stoppage time, Xabi Alonso passed from midfield to Steven Gerrard, who took the ball on one bounce and bulleted across his body into the top left corner of the net. Turnbull had no chance at it.
And Boro’s season went downhill from there.
Now, here we are, the final day of February. Boro has not won a league match since it stunned Aston Villa at Villa Park, 1-2 last November. Hull City is the only other Premier League side not to win yet in 2009.
Over the string of 14 matches, Boro has found only five of a possible 42 points, watching them drop from mid-table to 19th, one point ahead of West Bromwich Albion. In fact, Boro have been so anemic, they succumbed 3-0 at the Hawthorns to West Brom back in January.
Yet, by the grace of god, Boro remain only two points from safety.
In one of the craziest seasons ever, the bottom seven remain separated by only two wins with still 12 fixtures to go. No club is more than one victory from safety.
But not everyone can be saved.
Hull City has been terrible after a brave September, dropping from the top-three to 13th, only seven points clear of West Brom and six from Middlesbrough and Blackburn. The Tigers appear bound for relegation unless they find the form nobody thought they were capable of early on.
Stoke City, who along with Hull were promoted from the Championship last season, are currently 17th, but have the second-worst goal differential after West Brom. Bookmakers Paddypower paid out on Stoke getting relegated after their first fixture, no doubt playing off of their decision to pay out Derby County last year after their sixth match.
Many thought Portsmouth could contend for a top-four finish before the season. But Portsmouth never found the form that won them the FA Cup last year. During the transfer window, they sold striker Jermain Defoe to the Spurs and midfielder Lassana Diarra to Real Madrid. The potential is there for another Wimbledon-like fall.
I could keep going, as I still have not had the opportunity to discuss Blackburn, West Bromwich Albion, or even Newcastle, but I don’t need to. I want to discuss Middlesbrough.
Back in August, Paul Doyle of the Guardian wrote some brilliant prose. Doyle called Boro the “most mediocre” club in football, an “oxymoronic kind of club.” They beat Manchester United, they beat Arsenal, then they go out and fall to Aston Villa and West Ham without much of a fight.
Eventually, Doyle writes with an obvious sigh, “Boro are brilliant, Boro are boring, Boro are weird.
“But it generally evens itself out in the end and they finish in mid-table, just like the previous season.”
Yet, somehow, this year has been different.
No doubt, Boro have still been all three.
Their performance in Anfield last August proved how brilliant they could be. Their string of 0-0 draws defend the boring. The fact that their last win came away against Aston Villa, who are currently sitting one point behind Chelsea and comfortably in fourth, show just how weird Boro are.
But at the same time, they have not been weird enough.
Left-midfielder Stewart Downing, who led the Boro last year with ten league goals, has yet to score in a Premier League match. His goal against West Ham in Upton Park during the FA Cup fifth round match three weeks ago was his first of any sort all year.
The club has not been able to find a capable replacement to Lee Cattermole, who Southgate sold to Wigan before the year. Gary O’Neil has been injured on and off all campaign while his counterpart Mohamed Shawky has contributed more to the tabloids than he has on the pitch.
Shawky has been vocally critical of Southgate’s treating of Mido, who like Shawky is an Egyptian national.
Julio Arca has not been able to find his rhythm. Didier Digard, will be out most likely through the rest of the season.
Which brings us to Mido.
The striker spent most of the season as a mid-match sub, scoring four goals off bench. But Mido felt himself a star and demanded a transfer. Boro loaned him to Wigan in January.
In a case that is symbolic of just how bad the season has been for Boro, ESPN.com listed Mido as Middlesbrough’s leading goal scorer last Saturday, tied with Afonso Alves. The irony? Boro were playing Wigan, for whom Mido now plays.
And unless Middlesbrough finds the back of the net, Mido’s four goals may remain tops on the club.
Alves has been a huge waste of finances. Southgate paid a club-record, 12 million pounds for the Brazilian striker 13 months ago, but he has not lived up to his price tag.
He has struggled this year to get open, and his ball control is nothing greater than mediocre. While Tuncay Sanli creates miracles, Alves seems to pray and wait for one.
Boro caught one of its few breaks in September, and it is barely a break. Tuncay was thought to have torn his MCL playing for Turkey in a World Cup qualifying match. Luckily, the injury wasn’t as severe, and Tuncay missed only six weeks instead of four months.
Defensively, Middlesbrough have been banged up, but with Justin Hoyte and Robert Huth back, the side have secured three clean sheets from their past five matches.
Both goalkeepers have looked like solid replacements for Mark Schwarzer, who was sold after more than a decade at the Riverside.
Yet the Boro are still in 19th, only one point from last but only two from safety.
No doubt, Boro have the talent to rise, to survive. They’ve shown it.
After securing a 1-1 draw at Upton Park in the fifth round FA Cup tie, Middlesbrough won the replay against West Ham 2-0. Downing scored again in the fifth minute before Tuncay made it 2-0 in the 20th.
Downing’s free kick strike showed that maybe he had finally woken up, finally found the form that had him pursued by nearly every side in football. For the first seven months of the year, he certainly hadn’t shown it.
Now Middlesbrough are through to the sixth round of the FA Cup for the fourth consecutive year, a feat that only they and Chelsea can claim. But at the same time, there’s an eerie resemblance to the 1996-97 campaign.
That year, Middlesbrough made their first ever FA Cup final. That year, Middlesbrough got relegated.
This year, there’s enough talent that hopefully, it’s not really a concern. But Boro need to win immediately.
We saw what the club were capable of in August when Middlesbrough came within five minutes of beating Liverpool at Anfield. We saw just how well they could play in every facet.
But after 14 league matches without a victory, it’s easy to forget that it’s possible.
Saturday, Middlesbrough gets their chance to avenge the defeat. Here are a struggling Liverpool side that are just as in need of a victory as Middlesbrough.
Here are a side that are desperate.
Call me crazy, call it a hunch, but don’t call me an idiot. Anyone who watches Middlesbrough football knows that this is the type of match that the Boro wins. The worse the odds, the better the chance.
If Boro can secure four points from their next two matches – Saturday’s home fixture against Liverpool and Wednesday’s return match of the season opener to Tottenham – they will avoid relegation. There’s no doubt.
But if Middlesbrough can’t win at least one, the climb will be much harder.
If Middlesbrough does not win at least one, the climb will be impossible.