Final Score: Middlesbrough 1, Bristol City 3
As mist and fog swirled around the Riverside Stadium in the second half of Middlesbrough's surprise 3-1 home defeat to Bristol City, it became increasingly difficult to keep track of what was occurring on the pitch. A day-and-a-half on, and while the fog might have lifted, it is even harder to see how the rest of the season is going to unfold.
The Championship remains comfortably the most volatile and unpredictable of English football's four leagues, and while Boro's inconsistency might be a continued source of frustration, in truth they are no more erratic than any of their opponents.
In their previous home game, a 3-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday that briefly took them to the top of the table, they had looked like potential champions. On Saturday, as they lost by the same scoreline to a Bristol City side who suffered seven consecutive defeats no more than two months ago, they appeared anything but promotion candidates.
That is the way of things in the Championship, a league where the crammed schedule tends to produce tightly-packed runs of either wins or defeats, but where the competitive nature of things often brings sides back together in the end.
“I've been in the Championship for a number of years now and I think this is the toughest we've seen it,” said Boro striker Ishmael Miller, whose first-half strike briefly drew Tony Mowbray's side level before two second-half goals secured Bristol City a thoroughly-deserved win. “As a division, it's got more quality in it than I've ever seen before.
“There's a lot of big teams, and a lot of big squads with a real depth of talent. It's very, very difficult to put a long run of results together and it's going to be very, very difficult to get promoted. That's what we're trying to do, but it's going to be important that we get back to winning ways on Tuesday.”
Huddersfield are the visitors to Teesside tomorrow, and if the opening three-and-a-half months of the season have proved anything, it is that it is dangerous to make too many predictions about what is going to occur.
Middlesbrough's squad boasts more than enough talent to remain in the thick of the promotion hunt, and prior to Saturday, the club's home form had been impressive.
But they remain far from the finished article and with injuries to the likes of Rhys Williams, Jonathan Woodgate and Mustapha Carayol resricting Mowbray's options in some key areas, it would be naïve to take anything for granted.
Few would have predicted a humbling at the hands of relegation-threatened Bristol City, but it was on the cards from an early stage with Boro lacking cohesion and momentum from the off.
Mowbray tinkered with his team selection in an attempt to prevent City causing damage on the counter attack, and the decision to start with two muscular strikers in the form of Miller and Lukas Jutkiewicz was designed to enable the Teessiders to get the ball forward quickly, with Marvin Emnes and Emmanuel Ledesma providing support from the flanks.
The ploy did not really work, with Bristol City dominating midfield and causing a succession of problems from the wide areas, where Boro full-backs Stuart Parnaby and Justin Hoyte were regularly exposed.
“The aim was to be very positive against a positive team,” said Mowbray. “Similar to Sheffield Wednesday at home, we picked a lot of positive players, yet ultimately we didn't get the job done.
“The result is there, but I've said to the boys that I'm not going to over-analyse it. It's not one to pick too many holes in, we just have to put it behind us and move on. While we're disappointed, there's still a lot of games to go and we're still up in the top six. We just need to get back to winning ways again.”
Trailing to the eye-catching Albert Adomah's opener – the Bristol City midfielder stole ahead of his marker to convert Joe Bryan's low cross – Boro levelled when Miller stabbed home from close range 11 minutes before the break.
Things might have been different had the Teessiders been awarded a goal when goalkeeper Tom Heaton's punch appeared to cross the line after striking both a defender and the post, but referee Neil Swarbrick remained unmoved and Boro fell behind again shortly after.
Stephen Pearson swept home Neil Danns' low centre, and while Ledesma struck the crossbar in stoppage time, Bristol City had already claimed a third thanks to substitute Steven Davies' slick turn and finish in the box.
“I don't think it was flat because we had chances and played in spells, but we didn't put it together in the way we have been doing at home,” said Miller. “We had the ball that looked like it was over the line and when that doesn't go for you, you start wondering if it's going to be one of those days.”