Marcus Bettinelli verdict and what will have pleased Middlesbrough boss Neil Warnock most in eventful Luton Town win
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Suddenly it burst into life.
After a quiet 45 minute which produced no shots on target and little to write about, Middlesbrough’s Championship meeting with Luton eventually produced an eventful night at the Riverside, and ultimately three points for the hosts.
Boro boss Neil Warnock was calm and seemingly relieved during his post-match press conference after his side hung onto a 1-0 win, courtesy of Chuba Akpom’s second-half goal.
You can only imagine Warnock’s reaction if a second-half Luton penalty was allowed to stand, after visiting striker James Collins inadvertently double kicked the ball before it found the net.
Boro’s players were well aware of the rule which states the goal should have been chalked off. The Teessiders were on the receiving end of a similar incident when Marcus Tavernier did the same against Norwich earlier in the campaign.
Led by goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli, the home players rushed towards linesman Akil Howson, like the Norwich players did back in November, and eventually the correct decision was reached.
Still, if it wasn’t for the players’ protests and linesman’s intervention, referee Andy Davies would have probably awarded the goal.
Luton’s players understandably felt aggrieved after what they thought was an equalising goal, with one Hatters player shouting to the referee “you’ve s**t your pants.”
To be fair, manager Nathan Jones admitted afterwards that the correct decision was reached, even if he felt the linesman was ‘persuaded’ by Boro’s players.
Some may therefore say Boro were lucky that Collins slipped and the decision eventually went in the hosts’ favour, yet, as Warnock pointed out afterwards, they could also feel aggrieved.
On second viewing, Morsy’s red card was extremely harsh as the Egyptian midfielder slipped and the ball appeared to strike his shoulder.
Warnock said Boro are likely to appeal the decision which would rule Morsy out of Saturday’s game at Birmingham. The squad is thin enough as it is.
Bettinelli redeems himself
One player who was fortunate an error didn’t lead to a Luton equaliser was Boro keeper Marcus Bettinelli.
Here we saw the best and worst of the Fulham loanee as he spilled Glen Rea’s long-range shot, before Collins’ effort resulted in Morsy’s red card.
This was Bettinelli’s ninth clean sheet of the season, only Swansea’s Freddie Woodman (10) has more in the Championship, and the 28-year-old’s presence is palpable.
Week after week Bettinelli can be heard barking out instructions to his team-mates, calling for Boro’s strikers to press and praising his defenders when danger is averted.
Yet the keeper hasn’t always looked convincing when dealing with long-range efforts, or low shots which a player at Championship level would be expected to save.
In fairness to Bettinelli, he did make an outstanding intervention in stoppage-time to keep out Luke Berry’s close-range header from a corner.
It was a sharp save which ultimately won Boro the points after a nervy finale. Warnock’s side defended with everything they had.
The Boro boss relishes those moments when his side find themselves backed against a wall and have to do everything they can to dig out a result.
"I’m so proud of the lads how they reacted to going down to 10 men,” said Warnock after the match. “The defending was fantastic really.”
A fine defensive display
This was another night where Dael Fry looked like one of the best centre-backs in the league as he won header after header against the well-built Collins.
Paddy McNair has been an assuring figure alongside Fry this season, while full-backs Marc Bola and Anfernee Dijksteel continue to impress.
Warnock says Dijksteel is only 70 per cent fit after recovering from a hamstring injury earlier this month, yet you couldn’t tell.
And after the Boro boss told his players not to over-stretch themselves during a busy fixture schedule, Bola then took the chance to go on a lung-busting run in stoppage-time, before setting up Marcus Tavernier who blazed his effort over.
Boro step up as Akpom ends goal drought
Yet it was Tavernier who provided the first real moment of quality for Boro in the final third after a quiet first half.
The Teessiders’ attacking quartet of Tavernier, Marvin Johnson, Duncan Watmore and Akpom linked up effectively in the first half against Millwall on Saturday, yet they struggled to make an early impact here.
Luton were a physical side who were strong with their tackles and quick to pounce on second balls. “I thought they won the scrap in the first half,” admitted Warnock.
"I told them at half-time, I asked any of them if they had played in the Sunday league, I said because in the second half you have to play in the Sunday league and match their effort and physical side of it.”
Boro did that in the second half and took their chance when Tavernier’s probing run through the centre opened up space for Johnson on the left, before the winger’s low cross was converted by Akpom.
After 13 games without a goal, it was encouraging to see the striker run in front of his marker and score the crucial opener. It proved decisive.
Morsy’s red card handed the momentum back to Luton but Boro’s players knew their jobs and what was required.
When Warnock first arrived, some described this group as a bit too nice in certain games.
The players’ reaction after Collins’ penalty, as well as the way Boro ran the clock down after Morsy’s red card, showed how desperate they were to take all three points.