It was billed as a ‘dead rubber’, and in reality the game between Middlesbrough and Southampton was played out in exactly that style.
Of the two teams the Saints obviously had that little bit more to play for; the prospect of a top half finish would be their motivation, whereas Boro were playing for pride and nothing else. As it happened, Claude Puel’s men took one step closer to achieving their aim, unlike Boro who rather lacked the endeavour required to improve on a woeful run of one win in 19 league games.
Despite Puel making seven changes to his side, it was the team from the South Coast who controlled the game in the main. Martin Caceres made his debut, his first appearance since joining the club in January, as well as the inclusion of right back Jeremy Pied for his first start. Those changes told you all you needed to know about the feeling this game had for Southampton.
However, it was Boro who had the brighter start. They started with Patrick Bamford playing in a three behind Alvaro Negredo. It was Bamford’s first start since rejoining the club he last played for on loan back in the 2014/15 season, and in the opening exchanges he was involved in a couple of promising moments.
The first of which came when the ball bounced toward the £6m man, but before he had chance to connect, debutant Caceres managed to hack away in time. Just moments later Bamford was sniffing around again.
A clever one-two with full back Fabio saw him dart into the box, but unfortunately it came to nothing. However, the signs were there that he could cause Southampton problems, yet that would prove to be the last of any meaningful involvement in the first half as The Saints swiftly took control.
Despite a dearth in goalmouth action, Southampton were on top and were clearly the likelier of the two teams to snatch a goal. And so it proved as on 42 minutes, following good work down the right from Shane Long, his clever cross pulled back from the by-line was expertly dispatched on the volley by Jay Rodriguez.
As the half ended 1-0 to the away side, a small, muted section of the Boro support booed their players off the field, a culmination of frustrations no doubt that had seen them win only four of their 18 previous home games this season.
Like the reverse fixture in December, Puel introduced Nathan Redmond at half time, and the the ex Norwich man took little time to cause the opposition problems. A thorn in the Boro side once again, having run them ragged in the 1-0 win at St Mary’s as well as breaking Boro hearts in the Championship Play-Off final for Norwich a couple of seasons back, the young winger soon got on the score-sheet.
After a simple ball from Rodriguez found Redmond in acres of space on the left, he cut in and drilled the ball into Brad Guzan’s top left corner, the keeper left standing helplessly as the ball flew past him. It was a well taken finish, but there was no denying it was made easier than it should’ve been by a very charitable Boro defence. The stats don’t lie, since Christmas Boro have conceded 30 times, out of the 50 in total for the season. With defending like this, it’s not difficult to see why.
At this point it was hard to see where a Boro positive was coming from. Even the home crowd couldn’t help rouse a comeback, with certain sections of their support feeling it was a time to sing former boss Aitor Karanka’s name. This prompted bemusement from other parts of the ground with boo’s ringing out. The natives were restless; the atmosphere was close to toxic.
Just six minutes after Redmond’s goal, Long was presented with a golden opportunity to put the game way out of sight. Having been brought down recklessly by the much maligned Guzan (the foul drawing ironic cries of “off, off, off” from the home faithful), he stepped up only to see his effort clip the bar on its way over. This seemed to spark Boro into some kind of action.
Attempts on goal from Negredo, Marten De Roon and the Danish schemer Viktor Fischer came to nothing, but it was from a Fischer corner with less than 20 minutes to play that the home side would be handed a lifeline.
A smartly whipped in corner from the left by Fischer was met with the slightest of flicks from Bamford, who you could argue knew little about the connection, and the ball flew past Fraser Forster. Not that he would care of course for this had been a goal long in the making, and despite being behind still, the sheer relief and joy was there for all to see as he wheeled away in delight a finally ending the longest of goal droughts.
It was Bamford’s first goal since he scored in April 2015 against Wolves, for Boro, in the Championship. For a man who’d endured frustrating, goalless stints at Crystal Palace, Norwich and Burnley, it seemed almost right that he’d find the net at the place he’d previously been so successful.
You feel that if Middlesbrough are to bounce back at the first attempt next season then Bamford’s form will be key.
The remainder of the game saw both side’s huff and puff without any real conviction in either penalty area. Boro were reduced to on loan centre half Calum Chambers’ long range effort, bringing a decent save from Forster. Rodriguez at the other end continued to cause a nuisance, but his late effort went high and wide.
At the final whistle went the curtain came down on Middlesbrough’s home fixtures for the season, Steve Agnew still not giving anything away when asked about his future. Whether it’ll be him or someone else in charge next season, whoever it is has a big summer ahead of them. Inevitable outgoings, with suitors for centre half Ben Gibson stacking up by the day, will make targeting the right replacements to get them back up all the more vital.
One thing’s for sure, the home support have suffered this season. They’ll not want a repeat of the seven year stay in English football’s second tier between 2009 and their promotion last May.
Whatever comes next, you feel there’s big decisions to be made by Chairman Steve Gibson.
As for Southampton, this win took them up to 9th in the table. With two games still remaining The Saints could improve on that by finishing a place higher, not a bad return to say it’s been a far from spectacular season. Their League Cup final appearance coupled with a top half finish might not be enough to save Puel his job, the Frenchman struggling to convince all that he’s the right man at the St Mary’s helm.