Middlesbrough 4 Basle 1

..watched from behind the sofa by yours truly, who kept flicking channels to keep the tension at bay.

I can’t remember a better demonstration of the difference between belief and “passion”, although the commentators, who’d go on to miss the final whistle, were throwing the second word around freely enough. And why not, on a night like that – but there is a difference.

Boro set about Basle absolutely from the off, and what I read in that was a belief in a large number of Boro players that they were the better team on the pitch, and a belief that Basle knew it. Boro, knowing that they were able – indeed, perhaps likely – to win the game if not the tie, went straight into football that was for all its speed and flow, controlled and deliberate. A team without that belief would have begun at a run, too, but would have abandoned the tactical pattern early on in favour of e.g. frantic long balls, foul play, attempts at winning penalties (all night, Boro were reluctant to go down in the area, or protest too much when they did, a sign that they knew they could win legitimately). Boro didn’t need to work themselves up into a mad frenzy – they knew they had the plan, the skill, and the time – in spades, because they carried on knowing when it became clear that four goals, and not three, were the target.
It was a calm victory. The commentators were quite right about Maccarone’s winning goal – in those circumstances, you’d expect the ball to be blasted over the bar. He knew he was capable of scoring, and willing to miss if that was what came from doing the right thing, namely aiming the ball in carefully at the near post. It’s worth noticing that he was in the position to do so – he was calm enough in the moment to be seeing the game a step or two ahead, and wasn’t just crowding the box; he knew there might be a save, and where the ball would come to from that save.

So, calm, controlled, tactical football, played by men who believed that what they were doing was within their capacity, by men who were able to contemplate not succeeding so could try the difficult things that win games like that. Not patternless, dogfight football with the no-brain “passion” of a team that thinks it’s going to lose but wants to look like it’s trying.

I didn’t see the first leg after the opening twenty minutes, and from those got the strong impression that Boro were by far the better team and knew exactly what they were doing. So the result, when it came through, was a real shock, and last night showed that it wasn’t just me. Clearly, Boro still felt they had the beating of Basle – McClaren spoke of the last twenty minutes, in which his team’s far superior fitness would tell.

All of this begs the question as to why Boro are at the wrong end of the table.

“Bigtime Charlies”. One reason players leaving Manchester United tend not to thrive is that the targets they’re presented with at their new clubs just aren’t the same somehow. Demotion, in effect; fans might not like it, but it’s hard to take the same interest in things once it’s happened. And a player, looking for a new club and in search of games, might not realise that it’s happening. Some of Boro’s most experienced players are, in effect, frustrated big-club players, who, had things worked out slightly differently, might be at Barcelona, or Milan, or Bayern – and able to earn the rewards of their talent instead of saving the relatively untalented from the rewards of theirs.

Injuries. Last night, Boro had a plan, knew it could work, and knew they had the players to bring it off. It’s not often that they’ve had the chance this year, and McClaren’s relatively restrained response to victory showed that he’d had this team, and this pattern, in his mind all season.

The Boroness of Boro. It took Sven Goran Eriksson as long as it’s taken McClaren to get his Lazio players to realise that the club they were at were capable of winning things – to see that they weren’t ruled out just because they were wearing a shirt not known for success. Being at Boro and being comfortable with the idea of winning might not go together yet. The players – even the experienced ones – lack medals, so are still on the trophyless side of the wall. Jose Mourinho faced the same problem at Chelsea and solved it both by having won things himself, and by telling his players, simply, that this was going to be their year and that noone could stop them – and, because he’s a mightily plausible man, they believed him (it helped that they were so frustrated at having been robbed of victory a year before by their coach). McClaren hasn’t won anything yet; this could be his year. A Boro with a European trophy will be a different team next season.

And I, for one, don’t see anyone stopping them now.