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Payne's Verdict: AFC Bournemouth 0 Middlesbrough 0
SOMETIMES, the fine margins of football can be cruel.
Chasing a fourth win and clean sheet in a row, a feat not achieved since Harry Redknapp was at the helm in 1984, Cherries accomplished half of their aim against Middlesbrough.
Unfortunately, the hosts’ vastly-superior possession and territory could not be converted into the only statistic that matters.
But for two key refereeing decisions and the width of a post, the latest chapter in Cherries’ Championship tale would have been different.
It would be too strong to say that Boro came for a draw, but their focus was certainly more on defence than attack.
This was a team that had drawn four games 0-0 inside four weeks across January and February and, on the evidence of 90 minutes at Dean Court, it was not difficult to see why.
Boro boss Aitor Karanka, a centre-half of some distinction during a playing career that took in Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid amongst others, appears to have carried his defensive sensibilities into management.
Visiting skipper Grant Leadbitter and former Stoke man Dean Whitehead were enlisted to sit in front of the back four, leaving just an attacking three and striker Danny Graham to do the majority of the offensive work.
Seldom did Boro have enough players in the final third to cause Cherries a serious problem and, when they did, more often than not, Steve Cook and Tommy Elphick stepped in.
Upon winning possession, the hosts could have knocked the ball about in their own half all day long. Karanka’s troops swiftly retreated into defensive areas and that made it tricky for Harry Arter and Andrew Surman to make a killer pass.
Leadbitter and Whitehead swarmed around the ball whenever Cherries were one ball away from a shot on goal, while Boro’s deep-sitting defence generally negated the threat of Lewis Grabban’s pace.
On the one occasion the Teesside outfit side did slip, referee Fred Graham came to their rescue, ruling out Grabban’s strike for a foul on goalkeeper Dimitrios Konstantopoulos. On such decisions do football matches swing.
Boss Eddie Howe made one change to the side that edged out Blackburn 1-0 on Wednesday, with Mohamed Coulibaly handed his first start since the opening day of the season.
Chances were sparse in the early stages. A neat short corner routine resulted in Matt Ritchie sending a teasing ball across goal, but no one could apply the finishing touch.
On 20 minutes, one of the few occasions that the visitors left space in behind, Grabban was flagged offside despite having appeared to have timed to perfection his run on to Arter’s through ball.
Midway through the half, whistler Graham made one of the game’s two major decisions.
Leadbitter, who had already had a nibble at Arter in the early stages, kicked out at Ritchie with the winger’s discomfort clearly audible to the majority of the Main Stand.
On the advice of his assistant, Graham opted for clemency in only brandishing a yellow card. Another lucky escape for Boro came seconds later, when Ian Harte’s delivery from the resulting free kick was nodded a fraction over the bar by left-back George Friend.
Boro had their first attempt of note in the 28th minute as Mustapha Carayol’s effort deflected wide. Soon after, O’Kane was robbed by Lee Tomlin, but Cook was swiftly across to block the midfielder’s fierce drive.
Five minutes before half-time, the game’s most prominent bone of contention.
Konstantopoulos raced out to claim a loose ball on the corner of his area but lost control under pressure from Grabban, who then slotted into the net from an acute angle. Much to the striker’s chagrin, he was penalised for a foul.
Tomlin volleyed clear of the bar from Carayol’s cross and Surman did the same at the other end to close out the opening period.
There was little action to get excited about in the first 30 minutes of the second half, although moments after the restart, Ritchie’s cross-shot thumped against the outside of the post.
Cook twice intervened on dangerous crosses from the left flank before Eunan O’Kane was booked for taking a tumble in the opposing penalty area.
Marc Pugh, on as a substitute for Coulibaly, exchanged passes with Surman but could not get the ball out from under his feet when well-placed in the penalty area, allowing centre-half Ben Gibson to slide in with a last-ditch challenge.
Simon Francis brought out a full-length diving save from Konstantopolous with a rasping effort from 25 yards, before Surman forced an almost identical stop with an effort that was also bound for the top-left corner.
In between, Cherries stopper Lee Camp was swiftly out of goal to prevent Graham getting a clean strike at goal and the game ended on a sombre note, when Carayol was stretchered off with a knee injury.
Star man – Steve Cook
Ever since Elliott Ward fell victim to a knee injury early last month, Cook has grasped his opportunity with both hands.
The centre-half has built a solid partnership with skipper Tommy Elphick and the understanding of the pair is improving all the time.
Boro’s main danger was down the flanks and Cook was often on hand to deal with dangerous deliveries.
This was no accident. The 22-year-old took up intelligent positions throughout and made well-timed interventions when required.
The visitors’ loan striker, Danny Graham, barely had a kick all game.
Cherries: Camp 7, Francis 7, Cook 8, Elphick 7, Harte 7.5, O’Kane 6.5, Ritchie 6.5 (Pugh, 68), Arter 6.5, Surman 7 (Rantie, 88), Coulibaly 6.5 (Fraser, 58), Grabban 6.5.
Unused subs: Pitman, Smith, MacDonald, Allsop (g/k).
Boro: Konstantopoulos, Varga, Omeruo, Gibson, Friend, Adomah, Whitehead, Leadbitter (Ledesma, 77), Tomlin (Chalobah, 58), Carayol (Main, 90), Graham.
Unused subs: Butterfield, Williams, Atkinson, Steele (g/k).
Booked: Leadbitter, Whitehead, Omeruo.
Referee: Fred Graham (Essex).
Attendance: 9,710 (including 1,187 away supporters).
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