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Middlesbrough's bleak midwinter continues
8:00am Saturday 19th January 2013 in Sport
WITH the snow cascading in flurries, yesterday's game at Leicester's King Power Stadium was the perfect encapsulation of Middlesbrough's mood at the moment. Bleak midwinter doesn't even come close.
David Nugent's second-half winner ensured Boro's Championship record since the turn of the year reads played three, lost three, and for the second time in as many years, the club's promotion campaign is faltering as winter sets in.
This wasn't as bad as the defeats against Derby and Watford, with Leicester's current form strong enough to have forced Nigel Pearson's side into the automatic promotion spots.
But given that the Foxes hit the woodwork four times and had two efforts ruled out for offside, it is fair to say the margin of last night's reverse could have been much worse.
To rub salt into the wounds, when an opportunity for an equaliser finally presented itself in stoppage time, Marvin Emnes rolled a weak penalty too close to Kasper Schmeichel. As a result, Boro have now lost five of their last six away games, a record that is a major cause for concern.
Perhaps the most galling thing about last night's setback is that the game should not have gone ahead in the first place, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Leicester's determination to put on a show was more to do with the £80,000-or-so they were receiving from Sky Television than any desire to fulfil their fixture obligations.
While the ground staff had worked impressively to clear the pitch, which was undeniably playable, the rest of Leicester city centre was in a state of complete chaos.
Traffic had been gridlocked all afternoon, and hundreds of Leicester supporters were contacting Radio Leicester in the build up to kick off complaining they had been forced to concede defeat in their attempts to make it to the ground. Hence the attendance of 8,585.
Goodness only knows what tales the travelling Middlesbrough fans can tell, but a quick look at Twitter revealed that many had failed to make it off the M1.
As if to underline the extent of the pandemonium on the roads, even Middlesbrough's team coach was unable to reach the King Power Stadium, with the club's players having to walk the final half mile to the ground in order to make it in time to complete their pre-match preparations. Hardly ideal with the temperature hovering around minus three.
The Teessiders could probably have done with the extra preparation time, as when the game eventually got under way, it did so with them lining up in an experimental formation that saw Rhys Williams pushed into midfield and Josh McEachran required to break forward between split strikers Scott McDonald and Emmanuel Ledesma, who both pulled wide.
It was an unusual move by Tony Mowbray, perhaps prompted by the lack of creativity and incision in last weekend's home defeat to Watford.
The upside of the switch was that Boro's midfielders had plenty of space in which to break, and Faris Haroun would have had a clear run on goal had he not miscontrolled Ledesma's 12th-minute through ball. McDonald should also have done better with the first-half effort he curled wide of the post after cutting in from his station on the left-hand side.
The ploy's downside was the lack of an orthodox centre-forward, and there were times when George Friend in particular overlapped dangerously, only to look up and find nobody waiting for him in the box.
Leicester boss Pearson is not really the type for tactical tinkering, and there was nothing particularly innovative about the home side's play with a succession of long balls aimed in the direction of powerful front duo Nugent and Chris Wood.
The tactic was sporadically successful, with Nugent testing Jason Steele at his near post in the early stages of the first half and Wood clipping a ten-yard shot marginally too close to the Boro goalkeeper moments later.
On the whole, Boro's defence coped well in the face of Leicester's muscular approach, although Anthony Knockaert could hardly have come closer to opening the scoring in the 28th minute.
Released down the left by a slick pass from Wood, the French midfielder drilled a powerful strike that rattled off the underside of the crossbar before bouncing to safety via both the goalline and post.
At the other end, Schmeichel parried McDonald's fierce drive and Andre Bikey's glanced header in quick succession, but the first half ended with more nervous moments for the visitors.
First, Kevin Thomson, who was an early replacement for the injured Justin Hoyte, lost possession and Knockaert dragged a low shot just wide of the post, then Steele made a fine save to turn Nugent's strike around the post.
From the resultant corner, Manchester United loanee Michael Keane headed Wood's cross against the crossbar to make the woodwork shake for the third time in 17 minutes.
Remarkably, it was rattling for a fourth time 11 minutes after the interval as Wood, who had scored six goals in his previous three games for Leicester, headed Paul Konchesky's cross against the base of the post.
The Boro goal was leading an exceedingly charmed life, and Leicester's sense of frustration will hardly have been appeased by the 63rd-minute decision to chalk off Nugent's finish from Ritchie De Laet's cross for offside, even though the striker appeared to be level with the last defender.
However, Nugent only had to wait another seven minutes to make his mark. Knockaert chipped the ball into his path, and the former England international cracked an excellent 16-yard strike into the bottom left-hand corner.
That looked to be that, but Boro were offered the chance of a reprieve in stoppage time as Jamie Vardy felled Williams in the box. Emnes had barely touched the ball in his 20 minutes on the field, but he stepped up for penalty duty, only to see Schmeichel produce a fine save to his left.