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Middlesbrough column: How back-to-back wins give mission to Millwall a clear aim
Wednesday, 17th Mar 2021 17:37 by Jake Emmerson

After a frustrating February, Boro will be disappointed that Saturday’s trip to Millwall will be the final match in March.

It has been a month of much-improved performances with tonight’s win the third from four games. If it was not for some questionable refereeing decisions against Swansea we could even have been speaking about four wins from four.

As it turned out, tonight was Boro’s turn to benefit from another team’s misfortunes with a gift of an own goal and controversial refereeing decisions giving Boro the upper hand at half time and ultimately proving decisive.

The first half performance, while solid, was far from dazzling and the game was an evenly fought contest up until the red card for Preston’s captain and best player Alan Browne.

The red card itself was clear, with Browne kicking out at Sam Morsy. However, Morsy could easily have got a red of his own, with what looked to be a slap on the back and an elbow to the face of Browne, causing him to lash out.

With Preston manager Alex Neil sent to the stands at half time after his reaction to the referee’s first half performance, Boro clearly held the upper hand.

This meant that for the second half, the only potential worry for Boro was complacency. Neil Warnock however made sure that this did not happen, bringing Marcus Tavernier on for Morsy and pushing Boro to take the initiative.

And they did just that. The second half was about as comfortable as Boro have had all season with the only complaint being that we only scored once more. Tavernier played very well on his return, looking straight back up to speed with his driving runs and impressive energy levels. He could have easily added a second goal with a couple of spurned opportunities.

While the man advantage was always likely to make things easier, credit must still be given to the spine of the team. Grant Hall and Dael Fry were resolute and composed throughout and were well worth their second consecutive clean sheet. Howson, Morsy, Saville and McNair all did their jobs well and pressured their opponents constantly.

In his pre-match press conference, Warnock spoke about wanting to assemble a team where he knew the kind of performance he was going to get from 9 of his 11 players. The starting 11 didn’t look too far from being that sort of team. There were strong showings all over the pitch, making it difficult to see an obvious choice for man of the match.

Bolasie was the standout player in the first half, bringing trickery and excitement into the front line, and most importantly putting in the cross that led to the own goal. One has to wonder where Boro might have been if he could have joined at the start of the season as originally planned. Every fan will surely be desperately hoping that Warnock can convince him to stay at the Riverside for another year.

In the second half, Tavernier scored the goal and led Boro’s drive forward but McNair played very well until his injury, seeing a close range effort blocked before a strong run led to the cross from which Tavernier’s goal was eventually scored. Grant Hall led well from the back throughout while Kebano was a constant nuisance with his energetic performance.

Apart from only two goals, the other downside from the game was McNair’s injury. He has been one of Boro’s best players under Warnock and has started to look as effective in midfield as he did in defence for the first half of the season. To lose him while trying to put a run of results together would be a big blow.

Looking at the league table, Boro managed to finally climb up a spot from a 9th thanks to Stoke’s stalemate with Cardiff. Bournemouth won well against Swansea to hold on to 7th while Barnsley and Reading play on Wednesday night, each of them currently five points above Boro.

With just nine games to go, the play-offs still depend on other sides faltering as well as Boro surging, but Warnock’s side are refusing to give up hope. If they can add a win at Millwall on Saturday then that belief will grow, especially with games against the teams we could potentially overtake (Bournemouth and Barnsley) still to come.

For now, the team just need to keep picking up wins however they can, just like they have done in these last two home games. Warnock may even find himself with a bit of a selection headache coming into the game at the Den, the return of Fletcher and Tavernier, along with strong substitute performances from Johnson and Mendez-Laing on Tuesday, giving him plenty of options. Boro are unbeaten in their last six against the Lions and last season’s 2-0 (and December’s 3-0 Riverside pasting) give plenty of hope that they can end March really motoring.

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