Fulham defence goes AWOL
Simon Turnbull at The Independent

Middlesbrough 1 Fulham 0

What with the locals waving their miniature Brazilian flags and the public address system blaring out music of a samba nature, this particular Premier League fixture could well have been 5,888 miles away in Rio de Janeiro rather than on the banks of the Rio Tees.

Actually, the home town of Afonso Alves, for whose benefit the Brazilian theme was intended, happens to be Belo Horizonte. What price a top-flight English league game being staged there – where an England team featuring Tom Finney, Billy Wright and Middlesbrough's own Wilf Mannion were infamously humbled by the amateurs of the United States in the World Cup of 1950? A fair sight longer, it is safe to assume, than the 7/2 offered by Ladbrokes yesterday on Alves marking his Middlesbrough debut with the first or last goal of the game.

Like Stanley Matthews in that 1-0 defeat for England, Alves was left out of the starting XI, Middlesbrough manager Gareth Southgate choosing to wait until the 57th minute to introduce his club record £12.7m investment. Not that the South American goal machine was able to crank himself into working order.

Having gone five weeks without a game, there were signs of rust as Alves struggled to make the kind of impression he succeeded in doing in the Dutch Eredivisie, in which he plundered 45 goals in 39 games for Heerenveen. Still, at least he got off to a winning start, an early goal from Jérémie Aliadière maintaining the mid-season revival that is pulling Middlesbrough ever-closer to the Premier League comfort zone.

"It will have done Afonso the world of good to have dipped his toes in the water and had a feel of what the Premier League can be like," Southgate reflected. "It will all be very different for him. He's also had a couple of weeks that have been quite mad with all the to-ing and fro-ing and waiting for visas."

Ultimately, the game was settled in the 11th minute, when the Fulham defence went AWOL, allowing Gary O'Neil to slide a ball through on the right for the unmarked Aliadière. The Frenchman beat Antti Niemi with a nutmeg finish from the angle of the six-yard box – only his third goal for Middlesbrough since his £2m summer move from the Arsenal bench, but his second in three games.

It might have been accompanied by a first-half hat-trick by Robert Huth, but three times before the interval Middlesbrough's big German central defender planted headers narrowly off target while being granted the freedom of the Fulham penalty area. It was just about all Fulham could do to hang on before the interval, although Danny Murphy and Simon Davies both managed to test Mark Schwarzer in the home goal.

It was not entirely a backs-to-the-wall job for the visitors in the second half – once Huth had squandered yet another header in the opening minute, that is.

Middlesbrough sat with increasing discomfort on their slender lead but, fortunately for them, Paul Konchesky and Leon Andreasen both missed chances for a Fulham side who are yet to win away. Roy Hodgson, their manager of six weeks, might not be too keen on crossing Putney Bridge for any future 39th fixture, let alone the Channel.