Middlesbrough 1 Tottenham 1: Resurgent Boro give Spurs and Jose Mourinho an FA Cup fright
Perhaps the shock of election night last month saw the nearby defunct steel-making town, a Labour bastion, vote in a Conservative MP – prompting Boris Johnson to refer to it as ‘Bluecar’ before proclaiming that a “new dawn” had broken over Britain.
Similarly, Boro’s recent transformation has been the precursor to paroxysms of delight – and plenty of relief – on Teesside, with their startling upturn on the back of four straight wins leading to talk of a reawakening.
Granted, few would have been foolish and bold enough to predict a Cup shock against a side led by a manager who is positively gluttonous in his pursuit of trophies in Jose Mourinho.
Yet there was an inkling of hope again among Teessiders and that good feeling was further enhanced with this richly-deserved draw against Spurs.
To draw with a top-four Premier League contender is no mean feat, more especially given the fact that it was Boro who were missing more first-team regulars than their feted opponents.
Perhaps mindful of a bumpy visit to Teesside with Chelsea in February 2006, when he suffered his heaviest defeat in English football at the time in a 3-0 reverse, Mourinho was clearly taking few chances, naming a strong side with the only major absentees being Harry Kane and Hugo Lloris.
Yet Mourinho was grateful for Lucas Moura canceling out Ashley Fletcher’s second-half opener, with the Portuguese commendably refusing to rail against the fact that VAR was not in operation when the hosts’ goal looked a tight call. He had other issues.
Fletcher looked level with Eric Dier from George Saville’s probing pass, with refreshingly no course to check whether the Boro forward’s armpit or anything else was offside from overlords at Stockley Park – and he was not one to procrastinate as he raced away and put Boro in front.
Moura’s leveller came after Boro briefly erred and while it was a nervy finale in a cracking cup-tie, Boro’s fight, desire and application – on an occasion when they had two midfielders playing in a three-man central defence – merited a second instalment.
Perhaps predictably, Spurs’ classy triumvirate of Christian Eriksen, Heung-Min Son and Harry Winks dictated play between the lines in the first half.
But Boro’s resolution in a make-shift defence was a sign of things to come with Tomas Meijas protected well on his second debut, admirably led by Dael Fry.
Fortunately for the hosts, the fact that a natural-born finisher in Kane was sidelined was something else that was distinctly in their favour.
Spurs soon found rhythm in their passing, but they never really got behind Boro on too many occasions.
Testament to that was the fact that the closest they came to an opener arguably came when Paddy McNair, a midfielder by trade, heaved a sigh of relief after sticking out a leg and being within inches of diverting Eriksen’s cross past Mejias.
The Spaniard had been called upon earlier to block Eriksen’s shot with his midrift, but he would have been expecting to be busier.
Boro’s best moments arrived from the set-piece deliveries of McNair and a quick-fire spell of action midway through the half saw them go desperately close.
McNair’s expert free-kick found Fry at the back post with his header blocked by Paulo Gazzaniga and amid the commotion, the loose ball found its way to Saville, whose follow-up was kept out by a combination of the Spurs keeper and Toby Alderweireld close to the goalline.
It was a warning to Spurs that despite all their hegemony – they boasted 72 per cent possession in the first half – the scoreline was still tight.
Entitled to be satisfied enough with the scoreline, there would have also been a realisation at the interval among the Boro ranks that they would need to keep the ball better or else Spurs would eventually prize their way through and wear them down.
Boro did just that to wonderful effect on 50 minutes.
Saville picked up the ball in midfield and his defence-splitting pass picked out the untracked Fletcher and he duly feasted on his chance to race clear and slot the ball past Gazzaniga as Spurs appealed in vain for an offside flag.
Mourinho’s dark look told a story, but his emotions were more pleasurable soon after.
The ball found its way to Serge Aurier – a player who has fielded criticism this season but who looked one of Tottenham’s more accomplished on the day–- and his quality right-wing cross picked out Moura, who evaded the otherwise immaculate Jonny Howson to plant a firm header past Mejias shortly after the hour.
Still, the tie was tantalisingly poised and Boro almost got home fans on their feet again when Fletcher shot at Gazzaniga after loose play from Jan Vertonghen.
It was the cue for Spurs to push for a winner for the reminder of proceedings with renewed urgency in their quest to avoid another addition to their fixture list by way of a replay that Mourinho could have done without.
A parry in the nick of time from Mejias prevented a shot from substitute Erik Lamela from creeping in before the keeper beat away a goalbound curler from Moura.
But as Mourinho had the good grace to admit afterwards, Boro deserved a replay in London as they make their first-ever trip to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.