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Relegation fear won't go away; IN ASSOCIATION WITH mc Derby draw has left Boro in a battle.

Byline: ANTHONY VICKERS

A DISMAL derby has left Boro deep in the basement battle just as the high stakes cellar scrap starts to get nasty.

A sizzling Afonso Alves strike should have been enough against a limited side who came for a draw.

So two points dropped to the obligatory sickening late goal against Sunderland amplified the disappointment at a draw so much that it felt like a disastrous defeat.

It was a bleak day - and so cold that even Colin Cooper had his trackies on - and fans went away despondent because leaking the lead in such a vital game raised serious questions - and the answers are deeply worrying.

After nine games without a win and just four points from that ruinous run, alarm bells are ringing from Redcar to Ragworth... and they should be ringing at Rockcliffe too because unless urgent and effective action is taken this team is going down.

The chairman and the manager have both reiterated that senior players will not be sold.

So, unless some bonus bodies can be brought in on loan, we are working with the squad we have at present - the one that has got us into this mess.

That means the squad needs a radical change in outlook and approach. Soft-centred Boro have been muscled out of games and lost the initiative and goals in the closing spells - 10 in the last 10 minutes this term - as they have unsuccessfully tried to hold on.

They need to be fitter, faster and more physical. They need to be spiteful and cynical and steely and the opposition must come off the pitch battered and bruised and know they have been in a battle.

The laudable attempt to serve up enterprising football has failed to deliver.

With a fully fit first XI there were tantalising glimpses of what could have been, a flowing style that could hurt teams and please the pundits and punters alike but with a thin squad Boro do not have the resources to play that style when even two key players are out, not to the level to match the best and not with the consistency to beat the rest.

Neither do they have the imposing physical presence to match the more robust and direct teams of athletic supermen that populate the lower reaches of the table.

And as a crash course in total football and a dramatic improvement in silky skill levels among the more mundane members of the squad is unlikely, then it is by matching our relegation rivals with improved organisation and motivation that the necessary escape will be engineered.

Boro players must stop selling the public and themselves the flimsy illusion that they are only one win away from the top half and two wins from reviving the Euro-bandwagon and start facing up to the harsh reality that, unless they reverse the current slide immediately, we are looking at trips to Swansea, Barnsley and Plymouth next season.

Boro need to be much harder to beat, much harder to break down and they must stop leaking goals from set pieces.

If Boro can only score once a game (and 18 in 21 suggests that they may struggle to do that) then they must keep more clean sheets to win games - and win games they must because draws now will not be enough to pull away.

Boro have taken just four paltry points from nine games and are rock bottom of the Premier League form table.

The last win came at Aston Villa. Between then and the Sunderland game Boro have managed battling draws away at Everton and on home turf against Newcastle and Arsenal, decent enough results and displays but not enough of a return to halt the underlying steady drift towards danger.

The Premier League has served up a cut-throat 13-way relegation dogfight this season and survival lies in the ability to beat the others down there in the drop zone. It is very tight down there. Boro dipped a toe into the hot spots a fortnight ago when Stoke took the lead at West Ham only to lose it late on.

With so many variables in play, Boro's fate is not entirely in their own hands. Supporters recognise that - which is why the failure to beat Sunderland stung far more than just missing out on Three Legends bragging rights.

A win over Sunderland would have eased the immediate pressure, got a string of season shaping six pointers off to a flying start and boosted morale on and off the pitch. And in their ungainly scramble upwards they would have stood on the Black Cats' head plunging them back down into danger and that is where the key to safety lies - surviving the scrum and condemning the rest to a messy fate.

As it is, a golden chance to edge clear has gone begging, the slope to survival is that much steeper and there is one less game in which to reach the safety mark.

Boro fans will spend the rest of the campaign, calculators in hand closely monitoring not only their own results but a string of other teams' too.

The only consolation for leaking a late goal to the Mackems came the following day as Wigan scored at the death to beat Spurs - but we can't rely on favours every week.

The coming weeks throw up fixture programmes that are heavy with danger. On Saturday for instance, Boro go to wobbling West Brom knowing that defeat there could dump them in the bottom three.

Because while Boro play the rock bottom Baggies - who could move level on points with a win - second-bottom Blackburn could match that tally if the Allardyce effect helps them beat a Newcastle side only three points clear of the drop zone themselves.

And Spurs can go above Boro if 'Arry Redknapp can use his insider knowledge to polish off ailing Portsmouth.

In the following midweek programme Spurs take on fourth-bottom Stoke, while Blackburn play Bolton on a night when Boro must try to get something at Chelsea.

The following week when Boro play Blackburn, Stoke face Manchester City and Hull play West Brom. And the week after that when Boro go to Man City - the first game after the window closes and when they could have spent pounds 3trillion on players - Sunderland play Stoke, West Brom host Newcastle and Spurs are at home to Arsenal.

How tense is the rest of this term going to be? There won't be a fingernail left in white haired Teesside by Easter.

January was always going to be a tough month, and failing to push home the advantage against Sunderland makes it even more so.

That said, February will be tough too. And March. April doesn't look too clever either.

Let's hope we can relax in May... but don't count on it

CAPTION(S):

DESPAIR: Emanuel Pogatetz and Ross Turnbull show their dejection after conceding a goal against Everton - and there have been plenty of other similar moments this season as well
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 13, 2009
Words:1168
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