December 9, 2007 7:40 pm

Middlesbrough snuff out Arsenal’s flame

Arsenal are doing a fine job of saving the skins of north-eastern managers. They eased the pressure on Sam Allardyce with their 1-1 draw at Newcastle on Wednesday, while Gareth Southgate can confidently expect to celebrate Christmas as Middlesbrough manager after Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Arsenal.

It might have been a surprise result – but it was thoroughly merited. Arsenal went into the game unbeaten in the league this season, but against Middlesbrough they were sluggish and unimaginative, defensively suspect and tetchy in the extreme.

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Their frustration was personified by Emmanuel Eboué, who bafflingly escaped red cards for a first-half slap at Fabio Rochemback and then for an ugly high kick on
Stewart Downing.

Arsenal still lead the Premiership by a point, but the dimming of their flame in the absence of Cesc Fabregas and Alexander Hleb must be troubling Arsene Wenger.

To focus on Arsenal’s shortcomings would be unfair. Middlesbrough were excellent, unrecognisable from the side that had failed to win any of its previous 10 Premier League games.

The day had begun well for Southgate, with his chairman Steve Gibson denying any interest in restoring Steve McClaren as manager. “He’s not on my Christmas card list,” Gibson said. “If Steve McClaren said to me the grass is green, I would go out and check. He can be charming but he had this streak of ambition that was absolutely bloody ruthless and you can’t go through life always trying to achieve your ambitions at the expense of others.”

For Southgate it soon got even better. Middlesbrough took a third-minute lead through Downing’s penalty – awarded after Kolo Touré had bundled over Jeremie Aliadière – and it was only ill luck and Tuncay Sanli’s lack of composure in front of goal that denied Middlesbrough a far more comfortable victory.

Downing and Gary O’Neil were superb on the flanks. Aliadière’s running was a constant irritation for Arsenal, and George Boateng was calmly commanding in midfield. There was a pace and an urgency about them, and it left Arsenal bewildered.

A second goal finally did arrive with 17 minutes left. Downing’s half-cleared corner fell for O’Neil at the box edge. When Manuel Almunia parried his shot, Tuncay somehow squeezed the rebound into the top corner.

Tomas Rosicky pulled one back deep into injury-time with Arsenal’s first meaningful shot on target, but Middlesbrough were never in danger. Amazing how the news McClaren is not coming back can lift a side.

●In other Premiership games, Bolton beat Wigan 4-1, Tottenham beat Man City 2-1, and Blackburn lost 0-1 to West Ham.

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