IF Middlesbrough are to stay in the promotion hunt it is hoped that lessons have been learned from last season’s trip to Cardiff.
Eleven months ago a victory over the Bluebirds stunned the home fans and raised Boro’s short-lived hopes of a return to the Premier League.
But the outcome that December day failed to have the lasting effect that Boro fans had been hoping for.
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In fact Middlesbrough, who admittedly won their next game, managed to win just seven more from the remaining 26 of a topsy-turvy Championship season.
A campaign which had shown signs of promise slowly deteriorated and Boro ended up outside the top six.
Fast forward to November 2012 and hopes of a return to the Premier League are now even stronger, even though Cardiff put the skids on Boro’s nine-match unbeaten run on Saturday.
Middlesbrough might not have looked as penetrative and clinical as they did on their last visit to the Cardiff City Stadium. That shouldn’t worry Tony Mowbray or any of the club’s fans.
This is a different Middlesbrough from last season. Despite this narrow defeat, there is a greater sense of togetherness in this squad and much-improved depth.
Even if cover for George Friend, who looks set for a few weeks out with a hamstring problem, must be found, Mowbray has good options.
The same can be said if he learns in the coming days that Faris Haroun, replaced before half-time with a calf injury, will miss the next game or two.
Whatever team Mowbray fields against Bristol City this Saturday should be more than capable of pulling out a result and returning Middlesbrough to winning ways.
“It’s not necessarily who’s got the best team but who’s got the best squad in this division and how we cope with injuries,” said Mowbray.
Last season the new year slump coincided with an injury which forced Nicky Bailey to miss a significant chunk of the season. The difference this time is that Bailey is not even guaranteed a place in the starting line-up.
Despite watching Cardiff hold on to the 19th minute lead given to them when Matthew Connolly was given the freedom to head in a corner, Mowbray had every right to be encouraged by the amount of chances created.
Emmanuel Ledesma continued to show plenty of invention and two of his excellent passes, either side of half-time, led to Scott McDonald being disappointed with himself not to have scored.
Middlesbrough had ten shots on target compared with two from Cardiff – and one of those was Connolly’s winner.
Mowbray has no great cause for concern with Boro sitting third ahead of back-toback home games when chairman Steve Gibson is offering further ticket offers to attract the fans back.
“There are still 29 games to go, so let’s see what happens”
said Mowbray. “There are some very powerful teams with strong squads who are still waiting to play us.
“But if we keep that level of performance for the rest of the season we should be OK.
We’ve got to keep it going.
Many a team has started the season well and fallen away.
Last season we won only two out of the last 12 matches, so we know.”
There had been very little goalmouth incident until Cardiff took the lead. Mowbray had drilled into his players how to deal with Peter Whittingham’s dead ball deliveries so he was particularly annoyed when Haroun left Connolly unmarked at the back post to head home.
Mowbray said: “Cardiff got their noses in front from a pretty familiar route with Whittingham’s left foot. We’ve done fabulously well this season in not conceding corners and yet this time it was our downfall.”
After that it seemed a case of when the equaliser would arrive. Grant Leadbitter, so often the player to make Boro tick this season, went close with a couple of long range shots, the first of which had to be tipped over by goalkeeper David Marshall.
But it was Ledesma’s two clever passes to McDonald which should have ended up with the equaliser. Instead McDonald’s aim was surprisingly off and Cardiff held on to make it nine straight home wins to equal a club record.
Mowbray said: “The longer the game went on the more we looked as if we could get back into it. Yet the chances came and went and we didn’t manage to stick one in the net.
“We played pretty well, but the result is in the history books.” Mowbray will settle for that if, come May, Boro have finally returned to the Premier League.