There were positives aplenty on Middlesbrough’s Premier League return, but it was hard to escape the sense of what might have been.
As Boro’s players walked off the pitch after the end of their first 90 minutes of Premier League football since May 2009, they did so knowing that a 1-1 draw against Stoke City could have been so much more.
Boro, with momentum built from promotion and a summer spending spree in their armoury, were excellent in the first-half.
There were no nerves, no apprehensions: Boro were excellent, in particular Gastón Ramírez, who dazzled, forging chances and displaying a handful of his showboating techniques.
From the first minute Boro charged forward, pinning Stoke back to their defensive line. Down the left or down the right, crosses from a red shirt were directed into the visitors box.
Albert Adomah, in a clear sign of ambition, tried to lob Shay Given inside the first two minutes.
It only took 11 minutes for Boro to open the scoring, summer signing Álvaro Negredo heading home from after Ramírez headed the ball across the box.
Ramírez looked at home in the Premier League, excelling against his opponents. On 36 minutes he bore down on Stoke’s goal from inside the box and fired across goal. The Uruguayan’s shot, however, clipped the right post.
Stoke, to the contrary, were playing like a team out of their depth, bereft of a strategy in how to win: their two trickiest, most potent players, Bojan and Marko Arnautović, were left to conjure up opportunities rather than being fed chances.
It was telling of their first 45 minutes. Stoke were not exactly over-run, but they were undoubtedly inferior. Not exactly stifled by Boro, but undoubtedly the team less capable of altering the scoreboard’s status.
Then came the second half. Stoke were revitalised, sent out early to prepare by Mark Hughes. They became more compact, more of an attacking threat.
Boro retreated. The nerves appeared. The attacking threat diminished, and on 67 minutes Xherdan Shaqiri curled a sumptuous free-kick beyond home stopper Victor Valdés.
By full-time what should have been a convincing Boro win at half-time was a deserving draw.
Middlesbrough: Valdes, Nsue, Barragan, Gibson, Friend, Clayton, de Roon (Forshaw 22), Adomah, Ramirez (Nugent 88), Downing, Negredo. Subs not used: Konstantopoulos, Rhodes, Fischer, Baptiste, Stuani. Booked: Downing, Ramirez, Forshaw. Goal: Negredo 11.
Stoke: Given, Bardsley, Shawcross, Wollscheid, Pieters, Imbula, Whelan, Shaqiri, Krkic (Allen 78), Arnautovic, Diouf (Walters 69). Subs not used: Muniesa, Adam, Cameron, Crouch, Haugaard. Booked: Shawcross, Given, Bardsley, Wollscheid, Arnautovic. Goal: Shaqiri 67.
Att: 32,110. Ref: Kevin Friend (Leicestershire).