A game we must win
By Matt Rowson
This is not an easy preview to write.
Point one: it's barely a week since the last Middlesbrough preview, followed closely by a match report. How many things are there to say about the Teesiders?
Point two: following Saturday's experience, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to slag off any club, bar the Red Filth, ever again. Not wholeheartedly, and not for a while anyway. I think it's called getting things into perspective.
Boro's manager Bryan Robson, of course, knows all about the nauseating Old Trafford pompousness to which we were exposed at the weekend. Last week at the Riverside there was more than a little evidence of it, Robson's programme notes proclaiming that the referee had cost Boro the game against Chelsea ten days previously with two bad penalty calls. Funny how frequently it's the referee's fault, and how rarely it's the fault of rubbish players, or worse, inept tactics.
Funny also how much Robson's whimpering is far more reminiscent of his old United mentor than it is of, say, Gianluca Vialli. The Italian, on Saturday, had the grace to dismiss questions on Mike Reed's Anfield performance with the "referees make mistakes like the rest of us" line normally reserved for the beneficiaries of such human inconsistencies.
So what's changed at Boro in the last ten days? Well, a scarcely deserved victory over the Hornets in the Worthington Cup followed by a home win over ten-man West Ham on Sunday hardly constitutes a run of form - more of a trundle in the right direction - but it will give the team a bit of confidence. According to Robson, of course, this is only to be expected as his side have apparently "been underachieving since the start of the season". No, Bryan, Boro are mid-table.
Two changes in the respective line-ups since last Wednesday are likely to have a bearing on Sunday's game. First, the freedom from suspension of Paul Gascoigne. Whilst unlikely to be more than peripheral in terms of the outcome, he is of interest simply for the curiosity value of how Charlie Miller will react to being on the same pitch as his erstwhile role model. Secondly, and more relevantly, Mark Williams' availability at the centre of defence (albeit only briefly) releases Steve Palmer into a midfield position. One suspects that Juninho might be seeing a lot of him.
Bearing in mind the upcoming suspensions, this is a good time to be playing this game; plenty of sides in this division have good forwards, but we're particularly going to need Robinson, Page and Williams' physical strength against this lot. It will be interesting to see whether Robson opts for Hamilton Ricard or Alun Armstrong, who caused more than a few problems in the Cup game, to partner Brian Deane.
Watford's forwards can only benefit from the continuing presence of Steve Vickers if Gianluca Festa fails to return to fitness by Sunday, but we will need to test the shaky-looking Mark Schwarzer more than we did last week.
Some big positives for the Hornets leading up to this game. One: we caused Boro plenty of problems in the cup game, and they'll know it (although it shouldn't be assumed that Robson, credited with the tactical flexibility of a pencil sharpener, will do much about it). Two: Middlesbrough simply aren't very good, and even if this is their easiest away game of the season, they are chicken-shit compared to what we've had to cope with in the league recently.
But let's make no mistake; the slightly complacent tolerance of recent defeats in light of the opposition has no place on Sunday. The Hornets' recent weak paper form has disguised plenty of good signs from the Watford side. On Sunday, good signs won't be enough. This is the game when it has to come together... particularly bearing in mind forthcoming suspensions. All of the commitment shown by the support on Saturday will be needed again in abundance.
This is a game we must win.