Reading "Do A Boro" At The Riverside
READING did to Boro what we did to countless teams earlier this season.
The form side in the division soaked up the pressure with a highly organised defence and hard working midfield sticking tenaciously to the task - much as bubbling Boro did in August and September - then hit quickly on the break to make their few chances count.
You think having done it themselves so often Boro would know how to deal with it.
Credit where it is due: it was a fantastic archetypal Championship away performance. While Boro's display was, well, just average. And that is not good enough.
It wasn't necessarily the most entertaining display. There was no cavalier intent from Reading, no enterprising attacking intent. No sustained spells of pressure. Boro certainly weren't 'out-played'.
But they were well beaten by a professional and confident side with an effective game plan executed to perfection.
Reading's players all did their job: Ian Harte is a creaking football pensioners but put in a one deadly ball from a corner and scored a rocket free-kick. Experienced Jason Roberts was involved three time and set up two chances, just nudging Seb Hines aside. In midfield Jem Karacan and Michael Liegertwood closed and tackled and harried.
The Royals have built a platform to push for promotion that echoes the watertight record Boro put together in a sizzling start. They have now won five in a row and gone 473 minutes without conceding. And that is no accident.
Reading sat deep with two well drilled banks of four and deliberately surrendered possession and let Boro probe and pass harmlessly 25 yards out.
They held a rigid line and actively denied space behind their back four so Boro found it hard to find angles and width to deliver too many telling quality balls into the box.
And their industrious midfield four closed Boro down quickly, frustrating them and forcing them to pick their way side to side, to the edge of the box then back again into their own half to start again in an impotent ritual dance.
And when they knocked it forward quickly Jason Roberts, the archetypal one-in-four lumbering top flight targetman, held it up, barged Boro's defenders aside and caused penalty box problems.
Laboured Boro huffed and puffed and beavered away and did well enough in the middle third but lacked a touch of magic - or luck - where it mattered in the box and and couldn't break rigid Reading down.
It wasn't from any lack of effort on their part. Boro pressed and pushed and passed and picked their way forward with Marvin Emnes in particular showing some neat flashes of trickery in the first half but they couldn't find a way through. They weren't "cute" or clever enough Mogga said. And he was right. It was all a bit dull and predictable.
There was a dearth of creative alchemy on the edge of the box, no well weighted killer ball to spring the trap, and with Barry Robson off-key no-one to either able to physically drive through the last line. It was very frustrating.
Despite the lion's share of the ball, Boro had very few real chances. Rhys Williams and Lukas Jutkiewicz put stinging angled 20 yarders straight at the keeper and the Juke put a looping header over too. And Julio Arca sent a volley dipping just over after a half-cleared corner dropped to him at the edge of the box.
The best moment, at 1-0 down, was squandered when after a crisp four man move carved Reading open for the only time in the game, unmarked Robson was found with time and space on the right of the box but with the chance to carry it forward he lashed a weak and hurried shot that was easily gathered. And that was that.
Reading in contrast made two of their three real chances count. Game over.
For many angst ridden Riverside regulars it was also an archetypal 'typical Boro' performance too. Boro bossed the early stages but couldn't draw first blood then fell behind to Reading's first real attack. How often has that happened?
Ironically, for all the threat of Reading hitting on the break in width areas, for the third game running an old flaw reared its head as Boro were undone by a self-inflicted wound, leaking from a cheaply conceded and poorly defended set-play.
Reading made their breakthrough from a short corner routine that caused chaos in the Boro box with a whole posse of defenders failing to track the assertive runs of attackers before a free header at the far post nodded it back for Noel Hunt to bundle home.
But the problems had started before that as Boro twice failed to clear their lines. Then, when it came to Joe Bennett, he had the chance to hoof it upfield or put it in Row Z but instead poked a weak 10 yard pass from inside his own box to no-one in particular that was easily intercepted and played quickly back into the danger area for Kebe forcing Matthew Bates to put in a blocking tackle and give away the corner.
The killer second goal was also from a dead ball, long time irritant Ian Harte smashing home a sizzling 25 yard free-kick after a foul by Seb Hines as, caught cold, he tried to stop a quick counter.
This time Boro's habitual costly dead ball problem led directly to defeat. In the previous game a free-kick just before the break led to a free header for Darius Henderson and gave Millwall - who should have been dead a buried - a way back just before the break and set up a tense second half before Boro broke out to seal a 3-1 win.
And before that a rash challenge gave Nottingham Forest - who should also have been out of it - a late lifeline as Andy Reid's free-kick was nodded on at the near post (a familiar flaw) for Joel Lynch to score.
It has become a fatal flaw: Burnley also carved Boro open with a routine set-play. And, as they say on compilation albums, many, many more.
Losing to Reading was disappointing and frustrating - not least because the game presented a golden chance to barge back among the play-off front-runner - but it wasn't totally surprising. Reading are flying, playing with a swagger and very hard to beat. It was the worse time to play them.
Boro, in contrast, are just edging back towards their pre-Christmas form as the impact of injuries and suspensions on a thin squad ease and are still a bit clunky and ill at ease.
This is a division of very fine margins and unless Boro can get their best XI on the pitch they will always struggle against the top few teams. And some of the middling ones too if truth be told. We know that.
But defeat wasn't a disaster. Incredibly, despite a poor start to the year, Boro are still very much in touch with the play-off places - which says as much about the lack of consistent, clinical quality among our rivals as it does about the strength of Boro.
We are outside the play-off places again but the scrum is tightly packed, everyone above us have their own flaws (often the same flaws as Boro), have tough games looming and are just as inconsistent. It is still all to play for.
And with the walking wounded returning - much missed Nicky Bailey should be back next week - Boro can rebuild their own form and start doing 'a Reading' to team again.
The next two - Portsmouth away and Barnsley at home - are winnable games and can launch Boro right back into the pack before a flurry of crunch games against Leeds, West Ham and Birmingham that could prove decisive.
There's a long way to go.