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Baxter hoping Khune brings the magic

South Africa
By ESPN Staff

Men against boys


After this disastrous afternoon at Highbury, Middlesbrough's season is rapidly spiralling towards a crisis.

When you suggest the final score line in this game flattered this pathetic Middlesbrough performance, it puts into perspective the depth of the hole they find themselves in and it won't be long before they are being spoken about as candidates for the drop.

One side tends to plummet towards the bottom three after Christmas in every Premiership season and after this comprehensive battering from Arsenal, Middlesbrough have altered the rest that they are likely candidates to begin that unwanted slide in 2006. Woeful defending and a feeble midfield effort made this afternoon all too easy for Arsenal and did little to silence those who have claimed Boro boss Steve McClaren is losing his dressing room.

With star players apparently battering down the door to get away from the clutches of McClaren, injuries mounting up by the week and thousands of empty seats providing a blot on the landscape of every home game these days, these are hardly glorious times for a club whose rise from cash-strapped no-hopers to a Premiership force seems to have ground to a halt.

More concerned about the teams behind them than those challenging for European football, McClaren is facing his biggest test as a manager and it may be that the second half of this season develops into a personal battle to rebuild what is rapidly becoming a battered reputation.

Constantly hailed as the most boring team in the Premiership, McClaren stands accused of driving his players and the Boro supporters into the depths of depression. That he is not even producing the results to cover up the negative nature of his approach to the game means the heat may soon be applied to the man strongly tipped to succeed Sven Goran Eriksson as England manager.

Mark Schwarzer and Ugo Ehiogu are among those who have used the January transfer window to make an escape from the Riverside, with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink likely to follow, and while they have a decent gap between themselves and those in the relegation battle below them, there comes a time when 'promising' and 'unfortunate' performances have to be turned into something more inspiring.

Football supporters are nothing if not observant and while the passion for the game in the North East can never be questioned, the price of watching Premiership football these days means selectivity comes into play when picking which games to attend. When your visit is marred by a negative game that puts you off ever going again, little is being done to promote the club's future.

This is an entertainment industry and if you are getting to see a better show elsewhere, you don't need to go again. What Middlesbrough have done so far this season is stretch the loyalty of their fans to breaking point and while home wins against Manchester United and Arsenal were high points, the lows have been all too plentiful.

With a front two of Yakubu and Mark Viduka, Middlesbrough should be a potent attacking force yet you get the feeling their manager encourages them to play for a scoreless draw, only flirting with attacking intent in exceptional circumstances. The trouble is, his defence have not been good enough to carry out those dour instructions this season and this catastrophic performance highlighted all their flaws.

The side sent out at Highbury for this Premiership fixture had that 'hard working' McClaren stamp all over it, but you always felt that Arsenal's class would be too much for them. A midfield featuring largely untested performers James Morrison and Doriva in the central positions and two positive-minded wide players did not look likely to provide the invention required to uncork a makeshift Gunners defence and once the home side got their passing game flowing, it seemed only a matter of time before the breakthrough would come.

When Arsenal finally managed to make their dominance count, the Boro backline preceded to cave in spectacularly. Thierry Henry opened the scoring with a brilliantly cool volley after 20 minutes, and when Senderos made it two three minutes later, the game was over as a contest.

Boro's woeful lack of marking for both goals was alarming and they didn't learn any lessons as Henry and Pires added two more before the break. Many a side have been swept away by Arsenal in recent years, yet the ease with which Henry and company were dismissing their opponents was embarrassing.

It would have been five only for an offside decision to deny Pires when he headed home shortly after the break and the visitors again failed to learn their lesson as Gilberto followed Pires's example to head home in identical fashion after an hour. This time, the linesman didn't save Boro.

As Henry raced clear on goal after 67 minutes, there was only ever going to be one outcome and the significance of Arsenal's sixth goal on the afternoon brought a standing ovation from the stadium. Equalling Cliff Bastin's all-time Arsenal league scoring record, this was a moment of Highbury history to savour.

'When I equalled Ian Wright's scoring total in all competitions, it was something everyone was talking about, but this was not a record I have been thinking about so much,' stated Henry. 'Still, to have made it 150 Premiership goals for Arsenal feels incredible.'

Alex Hleb took advantage of more awful defending to make it seven with five minutes to go and Arsene Wenger's press conference was hugely entertaining as he paid tribute to Henry and let slip a secret about his transfer plans.

'What more can I say about Thierry,' he said of his skipper. 'I wonder how far he can go, how much better he can get. I'd like to see how many years it is before someone scores as many as Thierry for Arsenal because his achievements are incredible.'

It was then that the usually composed Arsenal boss had a slip of the tongue. 'We have signed three players this week,' he muttered, before quickly correcting himself and claiming it was only two, with the deal to sign Southampton wonder-kid Theo Walcott almost complete.

'I should correct that to two-and-a-half players,' he said, trying to drown out the belly laughs around the press room. 'Maybe you can expect another signing next week. You never know.'

As if things were not bad enough for Middlesbrough, they were reduced to ten men as Doriva was sent off for a second booking late on and even when they created a chance, Chris Riggott failed to convert as his volley hit the bar from close range.

That chance aside, McClaren should have been ashamed by this display, yet he was less than apologetic as he faced the media. 'I can't fault my lads for the effort they put in,' said the red faced boss, to the astonishment of many present. 'We did our best, but Arsenal were just too good for us and we have to bounce back from this.

'We finished the game with 10 men and six teenagers on the pitch and you don't want to be in that position when you are up against an Arsenal side playing as well as that. It turned into a test of endurance for us and in the end, the young lads I had to put out there are feeling very deflated by the experience. They will learn from it and emerge as good players, I have no doubt about it.

'Thierry Henry was unplayable for our young lads and they won't come up against quality like that every week. We have to lick our wounds and show some character after this result.'

It was hardly inspiring stuff from a manager who did his best to pretend he wasn't concerned by his side's deepening problems, but he must now suspect 2006 will bring little more than a battle against the drop. Hailed as a coach who is a master at organising a defence, Steve McClaren is now a man who has to prove he has what it takes to fight a fire that is threatening to spread in violent fashion.

He may be working for one of the best chairman in the Premiership, but any more days like this may mean the Football Association will not need to pay any compensation if they look to secure his services any time this year.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Thierry Henry

Equalling Cliff Bastin's long standing Arsenal league scoring record was a stunning achievement. Some might now argue that he is the greatest player ever to pull on an Arsenal shirt.

PA DISASTER: Arsenal's ever enthusiastic stadium announcer had something of a disaster as he attempted to whip the crowd into a frenzy ahead of kick-off. Screaming out the first names of the Arsenal players, he implored the throngs to finish off the announcements for him. Not surprisingly, his childish antics fell on dear ears.

FOOD WATCH: Tasty chicken wings, hot meat pies and waitress service for drinks after the match. Arsenal excel themselves when looking after the media.

MIDDLESBROUGH VERDICT: Rarely has there been a more inept Premiership display and if you are one of the few who still admit to supporting the woeful rabble, the time to hit the panic button has arrived. They may have plenty of injury problems, but those in reserve are a long way short of what is required at this level.