FOR a plethora of towns in the North Riding whose allegiances are roughly split between Middlesbrough and Leeds United, there was joy and pain in equal measure yesterday afternoon.
For Leeds, some efficient form on the road was shattered to pieces as they suffered their toughest away-day so far this calendar year.
For Boro, there were developments that few would have envisaged at the first whistle, with more weathered Teessiders no doubt preparing themselves for another rough old afternoon against Leeds, whose record at the Riverside was the stuff of legion. For the Whites at any rate.
The upshot is that Boro clinched just their second home win over Leeds since August 1992, albeit helped by some defending that was worthy of charitable status along the way in a comprehensive 3-0 verdict.
Here’s five things we have learned from yesterday’s game at the Riverside.
1: Liam Cooper must return at the back for Leeds.
Handed his chance in the back four, Giuseppe Bellusci had the sort of afternoon that will be down in United infamy. Not quite on the Paul Rachubka levels in THAT defeat to Blackpool, but you are not in a totally different ball park either. The Italian produced a disastrous performance, right from the moment he showed indecision which enabled David Nugent to fire Boro again early on.
The kamikaze header which he planted past Mirco Silvestri on 33 minutes was the sort of episode when you had to scratch your head and let time stop for at least five seconds before fully comprehending that it had all actually just happened.
Bellusci’s presence destabilised the United backline, with it perhaps no coincidence that Sol Bamba, playing on the left-hand side of central defence, also looked uneasy and gifted Boro a late third.
It was actually a surprise that Bellusci lasted the game and that Cooper didn’t enter the fray. That he needs to return to the line-up against Birmingham on Saturday is without question.
2: Boro are ruthless in both boxes and get the job done.
The sign of a good side is one who don’t play particularly well and win.
Boro were the epitome of that on Sunday. After starting out with riproaring intent and getting an early goal, the Teessiders controlled parts of the first half, but were steady as opposed to spectacular.
Their organisation and game management was impressive, with Dimi Konstantopoulos solid in goal with the back line of Ayala, Amorebieta, Kalas and Friend a strong unit in front of him. When they needed to clear their lines, they did not mess about, while in front of them, the likes of Adam Clayton scrapped and harried and up top, David Nugent worked his proverbial socks off.
Boro weren’t free-flowing but were tactically adept and resolute. Their position high in the table is no surprise and Uwe Rosler will doubtless want to replicate the Boro model. The German is not a coach who throws caution to the wind but rather one who plays the percentages and looks for consistency. Karanka has got that strategy nailed down.
3: Leeds should not beat themselves up too much - in general play going forward, they were decent.
The ironic thing about Sunday is that Leeds arguably played better than they did going forward at MK Dons the previous week, when they produced a smash and grab win.
Jordan Botaka enjoyed an encouraging debut, suggesting he can make an impact this season, while Alex Mowatt had his moments in a zestful performance which was more like his old self. Mirco Antenucci also assumed responsibility in the absence of the injured Chris Wood and also did well in an unaccustomed role up front on his own. He looked a threat and really should have been awarded a goal. Who knows what we have happened if that goal had been awarded? It certainly would have been interesting.
4: The referee and his officials made bad errors. But only so much attention should be paid to them.
On reflection, Rosler will probably regret some of his post-match comments. Regardless of whether Leeds are “too nice” or not, there is little to be gained from deliberately haranguing match officials. Fines from the Football Association are the most likely result.
United’s boss was nonetheless right to highlight the mistakes made by referee Neil Swarbrick. They were crucial calls at a crucial time in the game. The official bottled the decision to send off Cristhian Stuani who, by anyone’s standards, had already pushed his luck by the time he hacked down Charlie Taylor in the second half. And the less said about the disallowed ‘goal’ the better. The linesman’s handling of that incident - ending with him effectively guessing - was seriously inept.
But at the same time, Leeds were trailing 2-0 by then and trailing through the ineptitude of their own defending. That in the long term will damage the club and Rosler more than officiating and it’s where Rosler’s attention should be focused this week.
5: Leeds simply must get back on track against Birmingham on Saturday. A win is a must.
After a frustrating afternoon on Teesside, Leeds need to close ranks and regroup before Saturday, which is a big game for the players and Uwe Rosler ahead of another two-week international hiatus.
The encouraging proponents of Sunday - dominant second half performance, decent debut for Botaka, with Antenucci and Mowatt also catching the eye - need to be taken and build upon. At the back, Leeds need to get back to basics. Win headers and tackles and keep defensive shape and discipline and communication levels high and if the ball needs to get into Row Z, so be it. Leeds will need to man up at the back on Saturday and need their characters to come to the fore or else it could be a long, long old afternoon.
Recent performances at Elland Road have been fitful and Leeds will head into the game under some pressure. But coping with pressure is something that, as Rosler rightly says, all successful Leeds players must have in their DNA. We will find out on Saturday that is for sure.