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Match verdict: AFC Bournemouth 3-1 Middlesbrough
Friday, 2nd Apr 2021 18:33 by Jake Emmerson

Returning from the international break, today’s game represented the latest ‘must-win’ match as Boro looked to keep their faint play-off hopes alive.

Those hopes now look to be dead and buried after another lacklustre display at the Vitality Stadium.

Coming into the game, alarm bells were ringing upon the release of the team-sheet with key figure Dael Fry missing from the lineup - his assurance and strength was likely to be missed. His absence meant Paddy McNair started alongside Hall despite having played a full 90 minutes for Northern Ireland on Wednesday night.

By the end of the game, it was apparent just how much Fry’s presence was missed. Three goals conceded, all in poor fashion; accompanied a performance that bared no reflection of the urgency required. With only two players travelling to play international games, fans would have expected to see fresh legs, high energy and strong pressing from the Boro side.

Instead, they were forced to watch another performance with few chances being carved out and opposing players being given too much respect and time to play as they liked. This now leaves Boro 9th in the league, six points adrift of the play-offs but having played a game more than Reading and Bournemouth who occupy 6th and 7th position.

With only seven games left this season, it is safe to say Boro won’t finish in the top 6 barring a huge turnaround in form and a huge collapse of the three teams between them and 6th.

The first half was a non-event for Boro, as has been the case on too many occasions this season. A snap-shot wide from Kebano and a header onto the top of the bar from a tight angle by Bola were as close as Boro came to Begovic’s goal.

Boro tried to remain compact as the game began, wary of Bournemouth’s front three but 15 mins in, after Hall and Fisher both tried to win the ball from Danjuma, he was able to play Billing into the huge space left by Hall to score a simple opener.

The remainder of the half stayed quiet, both sides cancelling each other out, with very little quality on display. The front four of Watmore, Bolasie, Mendez-Laing and Kebano did not improve the lack of movement that has been seen going forward for Boro throughout the season and they failed to take advantage of Bournemouth’s biggest weakness in their defence.

The second half provided some improvements in the effort shown by the front four, with Bolasie putting himself about and almost getting lucky after a poor pass from Begovic to his centre back. He eventually provided the assist for Duncan Watmore who scored his 7th goal of the season placing a shot from just inside the box into the bottom right-hand corner of the Bournemouth goal.

Watmore had been anonymous up until this point but when the goal went in, that didn’t seem to matter. Warnock and the fans at home would have hoped that this goal could turn the game on its head and allow Boro to turn the screw against a Bournemouth side that have struggled with consistency under Woodgate.

However, only three minutes later, Bournemouth were back in the lead. Another poor defensive effort left Billing free to cross the ball in from the left side, straight to Morsy who managed to deflect it to Jefferson Lerma before deflecting his shot past a wrong-footed Bettinelli.

This took the wind out of Boro’s sails and despite bringing on Coulson, Fletcher, Johnson and Akpom, they didn’t create another chance for the rest of the game. Seven minutes from injury time, Dominic Solanke put the game away for Bournemouth, striking in a rebound after Bettinelli palmed his initial effort straight back to him.

This goal was the worst of three poor defensive efforts, with Bettinelli giving away a simple rebound and Boro’s defenders allowing Solanke to pick up the rebound and shoot again unchallenged.

It was a bizarre performance to see with so much at stake in the league, with very few players coming out with much to shout about. Morsy battled well in the middle but gave away the second goal and Bolasie had a good spell in the second half but was quiet otherwise and struck one of the worst shots seen by a Boro player this season, sending the ball out for a throw-in.

The game passed too many players by and the lack of leadership was clear again. Boro showed a lack of ambition going forward and were as quick to pass the ball back to Bettinelli as they were to counter-attack.

Warnock will no doubt be furious with the performance although he will likely use the opportunity to highlight Dael Fry’s importance to the side again, in addition to other missing players Marcus Tavernier and Anfernee Dijksteel.

Boro next play on Monday at home to Watford, who have won their last six league games. It will be interesting to see if Warnock uses the opportunity to play more of the younger players as the play-offs now look to be beyond reach.

The way this season has gone, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Boro put together a brilliant performance and get a win, now that there is much less riding on the game for them.

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