Coming into this match, Middlesborough had won all twelve matches in which they had taken the lead. Yesterday at Loftus Road, once centre back Dominic Ayala had put them in front with a close range header from a corner there was only ever going to be one winner and the visitors remarkable record continued.
Afterwards Rangers boss, Ian Holloway, expressed his disappointment at the nature of his side’s defending from the corner which allowed Ayala to pounce for the opener and he was equally displeased with their inability to close down Boro left back George Friend when he received the ball 25 yards from goal for Boro’s second goal just ten minutes later. He had a point but the build up to the goal had involved some slick passing across the pitch to open up the space for Friend yet he unleashed an absolute rocket into the roof of the net that gave Rangers keeper Alex Smithies no chance at all. Somewhat incredibly this was Friend’s first goal for two years and, on this evidence, new Boro boss Tony Pulis should encourage him to shoot more often.
Holloway’s response to going 0-2 down was to immediately forsake Rangers three at the back policy and push the unlikely figure of centre back Joel Lynch into a central striking role. This was a decision he immediately reversed at half time, instead bringing on the more familiar Matt Smith to play up front with Lynch returning to the defence. In addition, he brought on Bright Osayi-Samuel in place of the ineffective Aramide Oteh, Rangers’ goalscoring debutant from their previous match at Burton. These changes gave Rangers more impetus but they were unable to capitalise on spells of greater possession. In truth, as much as they proded and probed, they never really looked like scoring.
Boro are certainly no Burton. Indeed it is a wonder that they are not higher up the table as their team is full of Premier League quality and their experience showed. At the back, Ben Gibson, Ryan Shotton and Ayala were largely untroubled all afternoon, bar a few altercations with Smith when he appeared in the second half; Grant Leadbitter sat and dictated play from his position in the holding role which allowed both Stewart Downing and Jonny Howson to roam in slightly more advanced roles and the spark was provided by the speed and twinkle toes of Adama Traore, who looked a threat all afternoon. Indeed it was no surprise when he broke clear with five minutes to go and slid the ball low past Smithies to complete the victory. What was more of a surprise was that this was his first goal for Boro.
If Pulis can harness all this talent at his disposal and find some scoring boots for target man, Britt Assombalonga, then they could become very serious promotion contenders. Indeed Rudy Gestede offers a more than decent alternative.
Rangers looked a little ragged and the warm feeling of their previous two league victories and the positive influence of their new young starlets quickly drained away once Boro had gone two goals clear.
However, Rangers must not be too hard on themselves. Whilst ultimately a very disappointing result, they are giving youth its chance, which must be applauded and they cannot expect success every week. There will be ups and downs along the way. This was no disgrace for this Boro side had quality and experience stamped all over it.
Pulis has inherited a very accomplished group of players and maybe Chairman Steve Gibson was right in making the recent managerial change for this team should be more than just challenging, but should be serious contenders for the automatic promotion spots. Onwards and upwards for the Boro, whilst some reflection and regrouping for the Rangers and they all go again next week.