Bravery not enough to lift Spurs
MIDDLESBROUGH 1-1 TOTTENHAM
Whatever else Juande Ramos lacks, it is not bravery. Defying Jose Maria del Nido, Sevilla's fierce president, to join Tottenham, was one indication of that. Another arrived along with the teamsheets at the Riverside on a day notable for a trio of significant absentees: Dimitar Berbatov and Robbie Keane, both consigned to the rank of replacements, and Ramos' interpreter, who did not make the trip north.
The latter meant that Tottenham's new manager emulated his unloved chairman, Daniel Levy, by ducking a press conference - Gus Poyet deputised instead - and, inadvertently, there was a sense that the Spurs board had been heeded in the team selection.
The Tottenham directors who, fearing that Martin Jol lacked the stature to compete with the top four, wanted more star quality on the bench and they found their requests answered in unlikely fashion.
The enormously gifted Berbatov and the prolific Keane - provider of more goals than the rest of Tottenham's supposedly fearsome foursome in attack combined - found themselves in the dug-out for the first hour, watching Darren Bent and Jermain Defoe usurp them in the pecking order under the new manager. 'I wouldn't have minded bidding for their bench,' joked Boro's under-fire boss Gareth Southgate afterwards.
Given the presence of Berbatov's agent in England this weekend for seemingly decisive talks about his future, the Bulgarian's position there was more controversial. The repercussions are yet to become apparent. But on form, the omission of Keane - scorer of 15 goals in his previous 18 Premier League starts - was more surprising.
Poyet though, tried to downplay its significance: 'It was just a decision from Juande to play with two different strikers. There is nothing behind it. We thought it was the best two to start the game because of the ability of the two players and because of the speed they have.'
Pace may have been an issue, especially for those who expect Ramos' Spurs to be quicker than Jol's, with what threat Tottenham posed coming from the speed of Bent, Defoe and Aaron Lennon on the counter-attack. When Berbatov and Keane surfaced, they did nothing to prove their manager wrong.
An alternative theory is that Ramos' initial choices represented an examination of the merits of Damien Comolli's signings. If so, the results were mixed. Bent may have scored but, on his Premier League debut, Kevin-Prince Boateng displayed more highlights in his hair than his performance. Younes Kaboul, meanwhile, continues to be a one-man calamity in the rearguard. Being outmuscled by the somewhat slim Jeremie Aliadiere provided the most ignominious moment of his afternoon. The £8million defender would, if made available on eBay - struggle to command a fee of £8 on his current form.
At least Tottenham's club record buy scored the first Premier League goal of Ramos' reign. Bent, the striker Jol never wanted, accepted his chance with alacrity. Meeting a deft ball played with the outside of his right boot by Steed Malbranque, the £16.5million man cut inside and beat Mark Schwarzer at his near post. Had Bent succeeded with a second chance, provided by Defoe and going narrowly wide, then Ramos' gamble would have constituted a complete success.
Then, too, there would have been no way back for a Middlesbrough team who are, at best, infrequent scorers. Instead, Luke Young ended a five-match losing run with a magnificent rising 30-yard drive. For once when beaten from long range, goalkeeper Paul Robinson had no chance.
'An unbelievable goal,' said Poyet. Southgate agreed: 'It was a fantastic strike. From being a goal down at half time, we have to be pleased with the result. We are in a spell where lots of things are going against us, but we have to dig in.'
Booed by their own fans, Middlesbrough are sponsored by a satellite navigation firm this season and their eventual destination could yet be set to the Championship. Taking a mere two points out of 21 would certainly suggest so.
Yet they remain above Tottenham. 'We need to win every single game. We came here to win the game and one point was not enough for us,' added Poyet, though the words from the Spurs camp might have been more illuminating had the interpreter reached the Riverside.
But while Ramos himself was absent from the press conference, ensuring he retains an enigmatic air, his team selection was an eloquent statement. One of independence and one that should serve as a warning to any Tottenham player who considers himself an automatic choice. If bravery alone won matches, Spurs would have returned with three points.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Luke Young - In a low-calibre game, his goal alone would have been enough to clinch the award, but he also provided numerous examples of dependable defending.
BORO VERDICT: The absence of their best defender, in Jonathan Woodgate, and their top striker, in Mido, does not help, but the league table may be an accurate indication of Boro's chances. They were especially toothless in attack and while his departure may not be mourned on Teesside, Yakubu is certainly missed.
SPURS VERDICT: The most encouraging aspect of their performance was the enhanced form of Aaron Lennon and Steed Malbranque on the flanks. A defence that shows no signs of improvement, however minor, indicates what Ramos' biggest task remains, however, and they were no better than a mediocre Middlesbrough team.
IN MY DAY: Referee turned tedious self-publicist Jeff Winter was heard complaining about the paucity of good officials, meaning, for the second successive weekend, that Howard Webb had the biggest Premier League game. In his day, apparently, there were eight or ten who were good enough. Including him, at least in his opinion.