GRANT LEADBITTER is confident Middlesbrough will stay in the promotion mix this season - and feels finding a cure for sloppy defeats will be the secret to success.
The honest-talking 27-year-old thinks Boro have the strongest squad in the Championship and believes a Premier League return is on the cards.
But losing back-to-back league fixtures - and three of their last five - is a disappointing run which a team with top-flight aspirations should not be suffering from.
Middlesbrough head to third-placed Leicester City, who are level on points with Tony Mowbrays team, tomorrow night knowing another reversal could leave them five points adrift of second spot after the weekends matches.
Last Saturdays defeat to Watford was not the first time the Middlesbrough squad have been left despondent after coming away with nothing from a game they felt they deserved something.
"You want the Leicester game to come round as quickly as possible," said Leadbitter. "It was frustrating against Watford because our failure to finish the game off cost us.
"Its not ideal to be losing two in a row, we certainly dont want to be losing three in a row. I can take the defeats where we have not played well, but you look at the other games like Leeds, Cardiff, Watford and Birmingham, in these games you cant lose when you are dominating games."
While leaders Cardiff are eight points clear, second-placed Hull are only two ahead of Leicester, Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough. Then there is a four point gap to Watford, who sit two ahead of seventh placed Millwall.
After that the Championship tightens up, but Leadbitter is pretty confident the same teams will be fighting out for promotion come May.
"The top five have been the top five all season, pretty much," he said. "The top five will probably be there all year. We have just got to concentrate on the next game, make sure we look at Leicester and dominate.
"When we are dominating games we shouldnt lose. Leicester have won the last five on the bounce so are in good form, theres no better game to go in to. Football and life is a challenge. Im looking forward to it.
"When we are dominating games we cant afford to lose any more. We have lost ten games already, its just a good job that we are not drawing many.
"We have to take the league by the scruff of its neck in the next 19 games and make sure we get promoted. We cant afford to lose two more games on the bounce."
The first task at hand for Middlesbrough is promotion, with Mowbray well aware of the difficulties of trying to lead a sustained charge to the top division.
If he could achieve that first goal then he thinks adapting to the higher standard might not be as simple as spending big in the transfer market.
"Any team that gets out of this division can be very competitive in the Premier League," said Mowbray. "The danger for me is that you go and think you have to spend 50m to stay there.
"Norwich have shown without spending anything really with young players like (Wes) Hoolahan, that it can be done. For me, you develop a philosophy and a way to play football and you keep it.
"Swansea play the same way every game whether they are at home to Man United or at Accrington Stanley, because the players buy into it every week. The Championship now is very competitive.
"It hardens you up and when you get there I think the players will all take confidence from the Swanseas, the Norwichs the West Broms, who have got in, stayed in and prospered really."
When Bolton, sitting in the bottom half of the Championship, knocked Sunderland out of the FA Cup on Tuesday night Mowbray was not shocked. He had already helped Middlesbrough defeat the Wearsiders in the Capital One Cup this season.
Mowbray said: "Mid-table Brighton beat Premier League Newcastle 2-0 recently. If Brighton are mid-table in the Championship, it must say how strong the Championship is.
"There are lots of different styles of play, though, they are as expansive as you get and yet they are ninth and tenth. Cardiff play a different style and they're still getting results and winning.
"The Championship is very strong and diverse. We went to Swansea and could have won in the League Cup. We lost through an own goal and yet they go the Chelsea and win 2-0. How tight is it?"