Mikel Shines As Poor Finishing Costs Boro Victory At The DW

By Philip Tallentire

Goals win matches and Middlesbrough created just enough chances to claim three priceless at the DW Stadium.

Unfortunately they couldn’t take them.

It wasn’t a classic game but had the visitors converted their opportunities, they’d have been driving back up the motorway to Teesside reflecting on a highly-efficient victory.

Both frontmen were culpable with Britt Assombalonga firing wide with the goal at his mercy and Ashley Fletcher hitting the side-netting after rounding the keeper.

A point isn’t a disaster but it will feel like an opportunity has gone begging as the promotion race heads into the final lap.

Pulis had the luxury of sticking with a winning team ahead of kick-off.

Not surprisingly, he kept faith with the XI that kicked-off the 2-0 home win over Queens Park Rangers at the Riverside Stadium.

That meant Fletcher had another opportunity to support Assombalonga up top.

It also meant that, in the absence of the injured George Friend, Dani Ayala retained possession of the captain’s armband.

The Spaniard was part of a five-man defensive unit that kept a clean sheet against Fulham, and, in his absence, at Blackburn.

Ayala was partnered in the centre by Dael Fry and Ryan Shotton while, for the third successive match, Jonny Howson and George Saville filled in as makeshift wing-backs in a 5-1-2-2 sytemn.

Nigeria international John Obi Mikel operated in the holding role in front of the defence and marginally behind Lewis Wing and Mo Besic.

Middlesbrough were cheered on by almost 4,000 fans, the largest away contingent of the season so far.

They were packed into the North Stand, the end Boro defended in the first half, and they easily out-sung the home supporters.

The two teams used similar formations with Wigan also playing five at the back and two up front, one of whom was Josh Windass, son of former Boro and Hull striker Dean.

The visitors were the first team to create a goalscoring opportunity in the fourth minute when Howson floated a ball from deep over the Wigan defence and in front of Fletcher who drove into box but was superbly tackled by Chey Dunkley before he could shoot.

Then, a couple of minutes later, Kal Naismith found himself in space down the left with men over but sliced a woeful cross behind the Boro goal.

On the subject of poor contacts, Assombalonga managed to miss from a couple of yards in the ninth minute.

The move started with a Wing pass to Fletcher, who was near the byline to the right of goal. He managed to bundle past his marker at the second attempt with the ball ending up back with Howson who squared to Assombalonga waiting at the far post but the striker somehow stabbed a shot across the face of the Wigan goal when it looked easier to score.

The miss was greeted with widespread derision from the home fans but the miss didn’t silence the noisy Boro supporters for more than a few seconds.

Just before the quarter hour mark Assombalonga had another chance to score, this time when he controlled a Wing pass with his back to goal before turning sharply and hitting a shot that flashed over the crossbar.

Boro had the best of the opening 20 minutes with their phenomenal workrate the key to their dominance.

Wing in particular was quick to press the ball as soon as Wigan gained possession in their own half while Mikel was his usual assured self, playing accurate passes under pressure while also making timely blocks and tackles.

But Wigan started to come into the game as the half reached its midway point.

Daniel Ayala is booked by referee Stephen Martin at the DW Stadium

Their slick passing and clever running was proving effective after earlier resorting to pointless long balls into the Boro box that were easily dealt with by the three towering defenders.

The Latics opened up their opponents impressively in the 24th minute when a ball into the box was chested down into the path of Sam Morsy who poked a shot at goal from the left angle of the six-yard box and was denied by Darren Randolph’s brilliant block.

That chance came just a couple of minutes after Ayala became the first player to be booked when he appeared to catch Windass with an outstretched hand.

On the 30-minute mark Howson had a half volley that looked as though it might creep in at the far post blocked by an alert defender and, two minutes later, Wing was fouled by Dunkley deep in Wigan territory, a challenge that earned the Wigan defender the second yellow card of the match.

Boro raced out of the traps when the second half kicked off, winning an early free-kick but, once again, they were unable to create from the initial delivery with Wing driving the ball into the closest covering defender.

Wigan did manage to slice Boro open in the 56th minute with Windass splitting the defence with a superbly-weighted through-ball to Lee Evans who hit a fine cross from the right that Leon Clarke headed wide of Randolph’s right-hand post.

The Wigan striker should have at least hit the target from a promising position inside the penalty area.

Windass would have surely hit the target four minutes later with a thunderbolt from the edge of the Boro box that was bravely blocked at point-blank range by Mikel.

On the hour mark Pulis’s men won a throw down the left and the ball found its way to Besic who hit a powerful volley from just outside the box that zipped over the bar and into the visiting fans behind the goal.

In the 62nd minute the Bosnian had another go from distance with exactly the same outcome.

Five minutes later Besic, who had struggled to make an impact on the game, made way for Stewart Downing moments after Fletcher had hit a tentative effort into the side-netting.

Fletcher had another chance to score in the 70th minute when he latched onto an Assombalonga pass from Howson’s lofted through ball then rounded the keeper but, from a tight angle to the right of goal, again fired into the side-netting.

The game was opening up as both teams sniffed the possibility of taking all three points.

Downing played a fine ball down the line into the path of Fletcher in the 75th minute and the striker showed great upper-body strength to brush off defender Cedric Kipre but the referee harshly judged the challenge to be a foul.

It was a blow for Boro because Fletcher would have been through on goal with the keeper to beat and he did side-foot the ball wide of Jones and into the net but the whistle had long gone.

Pulis made a double substitution in the 81st minute, sending on Jordan Hugill and Marcus Tavernier for Assombalonga and Fletcher.

Hugill went up front to lead the line while Tavernier dropped in behind to link up with Saville, who had gone inside following Downing’s introduction as a replacement wing-back.

But neither team could break the deadlock in the closing stages.

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