They may have lost the £90 million play-off final, but Middlesbrough are showing early signs that they are ready to climb back onto the Championship promotion trail.
Their victory over Bolton Wanderers was as good as done after just 30 minutes; three goals in a dominant half hour spell did the damage and paved the way for a comfortable 3-0 victory.
At times last season Boro lacked bite in the attacking third; flair and quality which helped the likes of Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich earn promotion. Chairman Steve Gibson has gone some way to addressing that this season and this was evidence things are beginning to click.
Patrick Bamford may not have returned and Lee Tomlin may have packed his bags, but there are new arrivals ready to light up the Riverside as Boro try end their six year stay in England’s second tier.
Diego Fabbrini signed on loan from Watford and already looks like a player equipped to take the Championship by storm. After seven minutes he had opened the scoring with a 30 yard rocket, after seventeen he’d released teammate Kike through on goal to double Boro’s lead.
Operating in the number10 position Fabbrini wasn’t the only one contributing to Boro’s early and fast flowing attacks, but he was the catalyst and it was the Italian’s shot, with just over half an hour gone, which rebounded off the cross bar and allowed the rejuvenated Kike to make it three.
There was also a second home debut at the Riverside for Stewart Downing who added pace and thrust down Boro’s left, while fellow new signings David Nugent and Christian Stuani demonstrated Boro’s strength in depth upfront by starting on the bench before making brief cameos.
Of course after such a performance, which manager Aitor
Karanka believed “could be the best half” Boro have played under him, it’s easy
to get carried away. In truth Bolton put up little resistance and their injury
hit side which was missing the likes of captain Darren Pratley were toppled
over with relative ease.
It wasn’t just the new faces which impressed, the likes of Grant Leadbitter, Adam Clayton, George Friend and Daniel Ayala helped recreate the solid backbone which got Boro to the play-off final last time around.
From a defensive point of view they will no doubt face greater challenges than that of today, Wanderers managed to register just one shot on target as they relied on forwards Liam Feeney and veteran Emile Heskey to lead the line.
“I take full responsibility for the first half. I set the team out that way – with three at the back – and it didn’t work” said Wanderers manager Neil Lennon after the game. “The players didn’t get to grips with it very well and we let Middlesbrough dictate the game”
Even without the possession Boro were rarely threatened as they won the ball back quickly and in dangerous areas. On the flanks Downing and Adomah were swift to capitalise on any hesitant play or loose passes from the opposition while in the middle Fabbrini’s fast feet and nimble moves went untracked.
The Italian’s opener was an early goal of the season contender; after drifting in from the left a shot appeared optimistic thinking, but from a central position and about 30 yards from goal Fabbrini struck a thundering shot which flew into the top left corner leaving Bolton keeper Ben Amos no chance.
That set the tone for the 23,333 fans inside the Riverside who had already seen Stewart Downing’s effort saved after three minutes and George Friend fire wide after four.
As Karanka later expressed the football in the opening exchanges was sharp and positive and Boro doubled their lead ten minutes later. Fabbrini picked up the ball in a similar position but this time elected to slip the ball though to Kike who had escaped the attention of the Bolton defence, one touch was all that was required as the Spanish forward rolled the ball past Amos and into the net.
The Boro pressure continued as Kike had an effort blocked on
20 minutes before referee James Adcock became public enemy number one with the
Boro fans. After sending Albert Adomah to the touchline to put his boot back on,
the man in charge didn’t allow the Ghanaian winger chance to return to the
pitch straight away prompting a raucous response from the home crowd.
Once again it was Fabbrini who created Boro’s third and surely future opponents won’t allow him as much space on the edge of the penalty area. His shot on 32 minutes took a wicked deflection off Bolton defender Dorian Dervite and stooped over Amos, who managed to back track and tip it on to the cross bar, nevertheless it made no difference as Kike reacted first to tap in the rebound.
At 3-0 the game was as good as over, but it could have been more if Boro had kept up their finishing in the second half. Before the break Leadbitter’s shot whistled over the bar, minutes after the restart the Boro skipper crossed the ball to Downing on the left but his zipping shot back across goal went just wide.
At the break Bolton brought on highly rated forward Zach Clough for Jay Spearing however it had already became a lost cause. On 63 minutes Stuani replace Fabbrini who left the pitch to the chants of “Diego Diego” then with 7 minutes remaining Kike made way for Nugent.
There will be tougher tests starting with a trip to Derby on Tuesday night.
Man Of The Match: Diego Fabbrini