Yakubu Ayegbeni's early penalty gave Middlesbrough FC a slender but precious advantage to take into the second leg of their UEFA Cup last-16 tie against AS Roma.
The Nigerian striker scored the only goal of the game from the spot in the 12th minute as Middlesbrough ground out a vital first-leg lead ahead of Wednesday's reverse fixture at the Stadio Olimpico. The English side's UEFA Cup campaign last season was effectively ended by a 3-2 home defeat against Sporting Clube de Portugal at the same stage, but a repeat never looked likely as Steve McClaren's team produced a resilient and disciplined defensive display to hold Roma in check.
McClaren had said that an English-style approach would unsettle the visitors and his side duly started at rapid pace, harrying and pressurising their opponents at every turn. Nevertheless it was the Italian team who created the first clear opportunity as Philippe Mexes' long pass found Simone Perrotta advancing beyond the Middlesbrough back line, but although the Italian international slid his shot beyond Mark Schwarzer, Gareth Southgate was on hand to clear.
Minutes later, the home team took the lead. Gianluca Curci had already palmed away Yakubu's cross under pressure from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and when Gaizka Mendieta's pass split the Roma defence the 20-year-old goalkeeper was again quick to react, only to mistime his challenge on the Dutch striker. Yakubu duly sent Curci the wrong way with the resulting penalty.
Thereafter both sides struggled to pierce their opponents' defence, although Mendieta – who had an unhappy spell with Roma's city rivals S.S. Lazio in 2001/02 – was a tireless influence and involved in most of Middlesbrough's better moves. The two goalkeepers had only routine saves to occupy them, however, with Schwarzer dealing competently with Damiano Tommasi's low right-wing cross and Curci gathering Hasselbaink's effort from long range.
Missing forwards Francesco Totti, Vincenzo Montella and Shabani Nonda through injury, and with Italian international midfielder Daniele De Rossi suspended, the visitors struggled to replicate the form that had taken then on an eleven-match winning run in Serie A, although Mancini did curl one effort fractionally wide after an incisive move. At the other end, Curci scooped away an awkward bouncing effort from Hasselbaink and Mendieta might have given his team a two-goal cushion to take to Rome, but shot over after being put through by substitute Mark Viduka.