ON the grandest of stages, Middlesbrough turned in their worst performance of the season.
A Sky Bet Championship play-off final, reputedly worth £120million in Premier League riches, was not the game to fail to turn up for.
Boro were too lackadaisical and too short of attacking venture
Norwich City, the day’s 2-0 victors who seal an immediate return back to the promised land, were the far greater team.
Boro’s manager Aitor Karanka has been hailed for his tactical masterclasses this season and looked upon as a clone of his mentor Jose Mourinho . But at Wembley, he was outmanoeuvred by Alex Neil, Norwich’s 33-year-old boss who now boasts 17 wins in his 25 games in charge.
A grand total of 16 times Boro have led at half-time and gone on to win since the season’s start so taking the lead was always going to have to be a priority.
But the Boro set-up was wrong and their methods questionable. They disarmed their own weaponry.
They were not helped by the fact the team bus did not arrive until gone 2pm, after being stuck in traffic.
Karanka claimed that it did not hinder his side’s preparation, echoed by the players, but rushing about as opposed to familiarising themselves with the surroundings must surely have hampered Boro.
When the final got going, they were too lackadaisical and too short of attacking venture.
Norwich picked at Boro’s sluggishness, exploiting mistakes and space. They were quick to recover possession and even quicker with the ball.
For a team that have shipped just 37 goals domestically and kept 21 clean-sheets, Boro’s defence resembled the porous nature of a team at the foot of the table.
Karanka, trying to gee up his forlorn players from the touchline, failed to implement a change of direction for Boro.
What went forward, by way of long balls and not constructive build-up, came straight back. Patrick Bamford, clearly not fully fit, and Jelle Vossen’s retention of the ball was non-existent.
Boro have won a plethora of games without being easy-on-the-eye, but they have never come back from 2-0 down to win since 2006 when they beat Steaua Bucharest in the UEFA Cup.
If that night the unfathomable became fathomable, then a similar miracle was certainly not going to be replicated in the capital. Bradley Johnson spun a volley onto the crossbar after 10 minutes, with Boro breaking quickly and Vossen repeating Johnson’s efforts by also cannoning a chest and a volley off the woodwork.
Vossen’s miss was to prove crucial for it preceded the opener – a goal that the result was always likely to hinge on.
Dean Whitehead and Ayala dawdled near the touchline, reluctant to clear, and Cameron Jerome disposed the latter of possession.
The striker sauntered into the box and when it became apparent that he was not going to be challenged, he struck low beyond Dimi Konstantopoulos.
The Greek stopper was beaten again three minutes later, Nathan Redmond arriving into space in the box to take the ball away from Ben Gibson and shooting across Konstantopoulos’ body and into the net.
Norwich’s momentum was stemmed but Boro’s rare incursions into yellow territory were limited to unmet crosses and poor Leadbitter set-pieces
Bamford turned and shot at a diving John Ruddy on the hour mark but it wasn’t until 20 minutes later that Boro would go close again – Ayala powering a header from a Leadbitter corner over the bar.
Vossen stumbled over a Norwich leg on the periphery of the box but referee Mike Dean’s judgment was that the Belgian forward – who confirmed he was not averse to returning to Boro next season – took a dive.
With the Canaries offering little threat, Karanka looked to turn the screw as he replaced Vossen with Kike with 22 minutes left.
But Norwich almost grabbed a third a minute later when Russell Martin powered Redmond’s corner over from five yards.
Ayala then saw a header blocked by Grabban with eight minutes remaining but Norwich saw out the final stages with ease
For their multitude of failings yesterday, Boro can still take comfort from a largely successful season and they well be eyeing up fulfilling their 8-1 outright promotion price.
A Premier League return remains elusive – for now.