Half an hour to go. City are still 3-2 up in what feels like a season-defining game. Three hundred miles away in south Wales, Swansea are winning too. If it stays like this, then we’ve at least won two crucial home matches in five days, even if we would remain in the bottom three.
Half an hour to go. I’m more nervous than I’ve been at a match for ages. Middlesbrough, for all their limitations, are not lying down yet. Our manager has changed the tactics so that we’re no longer pressing forward, but are deliberately holding on. This makes some sense. We don’t need to score another. But my nerves are being frayed.
Half an hour to go. If every match stays as it is then the league would look like it had been ordered by a mildly OCD geography teacher working her way down the east coast. Newcastle top of the Championship, then Sunderland bottom of the Premier, then Middlesbrough, then Hull.
Twenty minutes to go, City – kicking towards the North Stand in the second half – have a freekick about 35 yards out, left of centre. Andy Robertson swings in a deep cross. Harry Maguire, running in unmarked behind the Boro defenders, directs a header from a tight angle just inside the opposite post. It’s 4-2.Middlesbrough have already surprised themselves by scoring two goals in a league game for the first time. They’re not going to get another. We can relax, revel in the win, and wait for Spurs to score 3 goals in the last couple of minutes to beat Swansea.
Easing City at long last out of the relegation zone were:
Jakupović; Elmohamady; Ranocchia; Maguire; Robertson; Marković; N’Diaye; Clucas; Grosicki; Hernández; Niasse
This game had it all – the atmosphere of a night match at the Circle boosted by a capacity away section, controversial refereeing decisions, a scoreline that ebbed and flowed, and a stylish performance that ranks as City’s best since Marco Silva got off the plane from Portugal some three months back.
From the off there was no time to catch your breath. Attacking the South Stand, City won a corner in the first minute. A couple of minutes later Lazar Marković is through on goal but elects to play in Oumar Niasse, who slots the ball home but is flagged offside. A relieved Middlesbrough break at pace, the excellent Adama Traoré twists Robertson this way and that before whipping in a low cross that is swept home by Negredo at the far post.
And Boro have matched their 2017 average of one league goal a month already.
But it’s only 4 minutes in, and City under Marco Silva have turned the Circle into the proverbial fortress.
Boro have scored too early. They’ve rattled our cage, and we respond with calm precision. By half time, City have put three goals past Valdés in the Middlesbrough goal.
First the superb Marković gets his first City goal, slamming home a loose ball from a couple of yards out following a goalmouth scramble involving Abel Hernández, two of their defenders and the keeper.
Then City get two more, one either side of the half hour mark, one each for our two centre forwards. On 26 minutes, Niasse latches onto an Alfred N’Diaye header and slips it past the keeper. A few minutes later a classic Maguire forward run sees our captain play a smart ball through to Kamil Grosicki who advances into the box before knocking it across for Hernández to score.
And we are playing with pace, commitment and skill. This is a barnstormer of a game, it’s passionate, tackles fly in, and we have fast, forward-looking players capable of breaking at pace.
Nor are Middlesbrough just here to play the victim. Especially after our third goal you can sense their realisation that Premier League survival might well depend on not losing this match. They are fighting for their top-flight lives, and in the latter part of the first half, it shows. Eldin Jakupović tips the ball over impressively as Boro press. If they can get one back before half-time, then the second half begins to look more difficult.
Thanks to the officials, particularly assistant referee Mick McDonough – of Northumberland, no less – Middlesbrough do pull one back on the stroke of half time. Following a corner, City’s defenders move forward leaving at least two, may be three, Boro players offside as the ball is played back in for one of them to head home. The offside looks obvious from my East Stand vantage. Referee Michael Oliver is in enough doubt to consult at length with his assistant, perhaps mindful that the same official had been widely berated for missing an offside when Manchester United equalised against Liverpool in January. But the goal stands. Happily for City, and Mr McDonough, the officials’ error didn’t prove decisive in the end.
The East Stand welcomes the linesman back to his beat with a chorus of boos as City start the second half with a precarious 3-2 lead. Cue Boro pressure, and City’s more defensive tactics as we hold on to what we have. Hernández goes off injured early doors to be replaced by Evandro, but this could as easily have been a tactical move as the manager tightens up our play and the Brazilian’s busy confidence suits a more compact formation.
For 20 minutes or so, we hold on but the lead remains just one goal. Then comes Robertson’s free-kick, Maguire’s first ever Premier League goal, and a two goal cushion that always seems enough.
To cap it all, with the final whistle nearing, there’s a rising crescendo of cheering, starting in the North Stand, as word comes through that Spurs have equalised at Swansea … no, hang on, they’ve only gone and got a winner. You what? It’s 3-1 to Spurs? You having a laugh? This is almost last-day-of-the-season stuff, as mobiles are checked and sums done, to confirm that City are at last out of the bottom three.
Post-match, there are two particular takeaways from this terrific evening’s football. One celebratory, the other cautionary.
The celebratory is how well every City player played. Trying to think of anyone who had a bad game, the best I could come up with was that Robertson looked a bit shaky for ten minutes or so after being beaten by Traoré’s trickery for the opening goal, and that Grosicki is looking a little too desperate to score, blasting over a couple of times when a simple lay-off might have proved more fruitful. But this is nit-picking. From front to back everyone had a good game.
I’ll pick out Marković because he’s been startlingly half-hearted in some earlier performances. Today he chased, he roamed freely across the front line, he scored, he even won the odd tackle. Credit must go to Silva for persevering with Marković and sorting out his attitude.
Maguire and Andrea Ranocchia continue to look an assured centre half pairing, and a goal each in the last couple of games adds to their contribution. Worryingly, Maguire limped off towards the end. But at least he was replaced by the returning Michael Dawson (best defender at the club in my view).
Man of the Match deservedly went to Sam Clucas, an absolute revelation this season in the midfield holding role, and stepping into it with aplomb while Tom Huddlestone is suspended. His close control is a joy to watch. I’ve not counted up, but he will surely have clocked up the most performances of any City player this season so far? There’s a measure of the man.
But let’s dampen the mood a little to finish. The other thought that I had leaving the ground was how much tonight’s match reminded me of the night two years ago when we beat Liverpool at the KC. Like tonight, it was the second of two games in five April days. Like tonight, City had won the first one, knocking two goals past a London club too as it happens. Like tonight, the crucial goal came from our captain, a centre half scoring his first Premier League goal for the club. Like tonight, City fans streamed away from the stadium confident that we had what it would take to secure our top flight future. A few weeks later we were relegated.
It’s been a great few days for City. The victory against Middlesbrough was massive, and this midweek round of fixtures went well as far as other results are concerned too. But we’re not safe yet.
Ed Bacon (report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list)