Fulham lack striker impact
Pete Oliver at Sunday Times
  The Times Logo  

Middlesbrough 1 Fulham 0

At face value, Brazil and Teesside would appear to have little in common but with an increasingly well-trodden path between the two having been taken by striker Afonso Alves, Middlesbrough insist that their ambitions remain high.

Premier League club chairmen may not be the flavour of the month everywhere, given their apparent backing for the controversial plan to play an extra league fixture outside this country, but at the Riverside Stadium, Steve Gibson still reigns supreme.

Having stumped up for the £12m record buy of Alves from Dutch club Heerenveen, Gibson’s name was chanted by the Middlesbrough supporters as soon as they had regained their breath following the introduction of the Brazilian international as a 57th-minute substitute.

Boro hope Alves, with a prolific scoring record in Holland and Sweden, will eradicate the one glaring weakness in their side and even though he never threatened to open his English account yesterday, he has already enlivened Teesside.

Alves is the fifth Brazilian to have made it to the Riverside, which was filled with almost 4,000 more supporters than the last home game and where fellow countryman Juninho is still revered. In his first of three spells here, Juninho, in partnership with Emerson, helped Boro to two cup finals but then left in tears following relegation.

That fate should be spared Gareth Southgate’s side this time as they continued their climb up the table thanks to a first-half goal from Jeremie Aliadiere that extended Boro’s unbeaten run to five league games and lifted them above Newcastle United to give them regional superiority.

Fulham can not be so confident of their status as they remain in the relegation zone thanks to yet another pointless away trip. Back-to-back league wins for the first time since September 2006, the last time they won away, continue to elude them and despite not looking a lost cause, time is running out. Despite the efforts of captain Danny Murphy and plenty of time spent in Boro’s half, they failed to create a single worthwhile chance. Manager Roy Hodgson needs his strikers to start making an impact.

With Alves starting on the bench alongside the less than match-fit Mido, Middlesbrough’s strike partnership of Aliadiere and Dong Gook Lee did not posses the most menacing look with a combined career total of just three Premier League goals between them, all scored by Aliadiere.

That in part explained both Southgate’s willingness to break the club’s transfer record to recruit Alves and Middlesbrough’s status as the second-least prolific goalscorers in the division, ahead only of Derby.

Yet Aliadiere’s contribution as a selfless worker was praised by Southgate before the game and after scoring the winning goal here a fortnight ago, the Frenchman did the trick again after 11 minutes.

Fulham, lifted by ending their long winless run against Aston Villa a week previously, had started purposefully but the ease with which they conceded did not bode well for their survival prospects. Renowned as a soft touch away from home, they allowed Aliadiere to make a straightforward run behind the back four to reach a pass that Gary O’Neil had slid outside Paul Konchesky. Faced with Antti Niemi, the striker held his nerve and was rewarded when his shot went through the goal-keeper’s legs.

Fulham dusted themselves down and eased their way back into contention. Without a powerful presence of their own up front, where Erik Nevland started as lone striker, they were never likely to bombard the Middlesbrough goal. But following a corner, Murphy stabbed a shot towards the bottom corner of the net that had Mark Schwarzer scrambling to save and then Simon Davies sent a long-range effort whistling just wide to leave Middlesbrough more relieved to reach the break.

Middlesbrough needed a second goal to ease their apparent tension and although Robert Huth threatened with a header from a corner early in the second half, Southgate waited less than an hour to give Alves his debut.

Paul Konchesky had just forced Schwarzer to save from a free kick when Alves was sent on to a standing ovation to replace the limited Lee. The 10,000 Brazilian flags dished out to supporters were duly waved but having not played since the end of December, the 27-year-old substitute was always likely to find it hard to make an immediate impact, particularly as Fulham still sensed some potential reward.

Hodgson introduced Brian McBride and Clint Dempsey, who had played for the United States in Texas just two days previously, to add to the momentum but Fulham were still reliant on long-range efforts for their main goal threat as both Leon Andreasen and the impressive Murphy located the target without seriously testing Schwarzer.

Alves barely had a touch but with a four-and-a-half year contract secured there will be much more to come and yesterday, at least, Boro just about got by without him.

Middlesbrough: Schwarzer 7, Young 7, Wheater 7, Huth 7, Pogatetz 6, O’Neil 7, Rochemback 6, Arca 6, Downing 6, Aliadiere 7 (Boateng 76min), Lee 6 (Alves 57min, 5)

Fulham: Niemi 6, Stalteri 6, Baird 6, Hangeland 6, Konchesky 6, Davies 6, Murphy 7, Bullard 6, Andreasen 6, Kamara 6 (Dempsey ht, 5), Nevland 5 (McBride 64min)

Scorer: Middlesbrough: Aliadiere 11

Yellow cards: Middlesbrough: Huth Fulham: Kamara, Nevland

Referee: P Dowd

Attendance: 26,885