IN terms of delivering a New Year message to the Championship, Middlesbrough’s script was typically unyielding and Churchillian.
A maxim of ‘they-shall-not pass’ has served the Teessiders infinitely well this term, with Sheffield Wednesday finding that out to their chagrin last night – on an evening when head coach Carlos Carvalhal again vented his fury in the direction of the Football League for the scheduling of the fixture.
The Portuguese confirmed that the club’s efforts to get yesterday’s game put back a day were rebuffed by league officials – with the Owls forced to take the field for the second time in just over 48 hours, while refreshed Boro were striding out for their first appointment in nine days after their Boxing Day match at Blackburn Rovers was postponed.
Carvalhal was assuaged by witnessing his Wednesday side push Boro all the way following an assertive second-half display that was as proactive as their showing in the first period was inhibited. But not by much.
Carvalhal, who made six changes to his side with man-of-the-moment Fernando Forestieri starting from the bench, rued: “I could not have asked my players to do better in their condition.
“I am sure if it was the opposite and they had played two days ago, we would have won this game. They had a 90 per cent advantage to win the game.
“We asked the league to change the game (to Tuesday) because there are games. But the answer was no and this type of thing is not good for the competition.”
Carvalhal could justifiably feel that Wednesday were unlucky at not taking anything away from the Riverside.
Yet equally, it was hard not to admire Boro’s cast-iron defence, which enabled them to move two points clear at the top ahead of Derby County – who visit Leeds United tonight – en route to a club-record equalling seventh consecutive league clean sheet.
Boro’s Scrooge-like qualities are not just restricted to the festive season. All told, they have not conceded a Championship goal in 637 minutes – over 10-and-a-half hours – since Tom Huddlestone’s strike for Hull on November 7.
Their parsimony on home soil is even more epic, with Fortress Riverside having not been breached in the Championship in 12 hours and 41 minutes – since Lasse Vibe netted for Brentford in their 3-1 loss on September 12.
Not that their 13th clean sheet in 23 league outings and eighth on the trot at home was particularly routine on the restart when the Owls – vastly improved when Forestieri entered the fray – pushed Boro all the way.
It was in marked contrast to a nightmare start which saw the visitors concede after just 44 seconds when Cristhian Stuani plundered his 10th goal of the campaign.
The game’s other pivotal moment arrived nine minutes from time when the outstanding Dani Ayala made a heroic goalline block to somewhat divert Daniel Pudil’s header – which wonderfully summed up Boro’s defensive steadfastness.
It was a dereliction of defensive duty which yielded the first minute breakthrough when the Owls were caught cold at the back following a lightning Boro raid.
Stewart Downing’s left-wing cross was stabbed home from close range by Stuani with the visitors barely able to draw breath in a high-velocity Boro opening.
Emilio Nsue was soon within a whisker of making it two with a scorching strike before Stuani headed straight at Joe Wildsmith, with little respite afforded Carvalhal’s shell-shocked side.
Nsue then bundled off target at the back post, with Wednesday posting little attacking threat in the first period in which the traffic was decidedly one-way.
The only redeeming feature for the Owls at half-time was the fact Boro’s lead was slender despite their iron grip on a half in which they wholly dominated.
Wednesday needed a boost and they got one with the sight of Forestieri entering the fray at the interval. Wednesday’s first effort on target may have arrived on 58 minutes when Barry Bannan’s shot was fielded by Dimi Konstantopoulos, but it took some more frenzied defence to block Forestieri’s close-range effort.
More last-ditch defending by Ayala saved the day when he somehow cleared Pudil’s looping header, with the Owls unable to find a way through.
On the win for Boro, who completed their first seasonal double over the Owls since 1983-84, head coach Aitor Karanka said: “It’s always nice to win, especially against a good team. We knew that they played on Saturday, but they have a good squad and players who can change the game. They are really dangerous.”
Middlesbrough: Konstantopoulos, Nsue (Amorebieta 89), Ayala, Gibson, Friend, Clayton, Leadbitter, Stuani, Downing, Adomah (Fabbrini 62), Garcia (Kalas 73). Unused substitutes: De Pena, Mejias, Forshaw, Zuculini.
Sheffield Wednesday: Wildsmith, Palmer, Hutchinson (Pudil 46), Loovens, Wiggins, Semedo (Forestieri 46), Sougou,Lee, Bannan, Helan (Nuhiu 68), Joao. Unused substitutes: Sasso, Hunt, Wallace, Price.
Referee: D Coote (Notts).
Man of the match: Dani Ayala.