Final Score: Middlesbrough 2 Barnsley 3
IT started as a traditional turn-of-year blip. Then, after defeats to Leicester and Ipswich, it developed into a longer-lasting slump that had the potential to damage Middlesbrough's promotion ambitions.
Now, after Saturday's 3-2 home defeat to relegation-threatened Barnsley made it no points from a possible 15 since the start of 2013, Boro's faltering form has developed into a full-blown crisis that threatens to wreck any hope of a return to the Premier League.
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The league table might show that Boro remain well-placed to mount a successful promotion push in the remaining 16 matches of the season, but the mutinous mood that accompanied the final whistle at the weekend suggests a large proportion of the club's fans have concluded that a repeat of last season's disappointment, when the Teessiders faded out of the play-off picture after having been in a top-two position on New Year's Day, is in the offing.
At the moment, Boro certainly look anything but promotion material. There is not a single part of their side that is functioning effectively, with the strikers struggling to carry a threat in the absence of the injured Scott McDonald, the midfielders lacking cohesion and creativity despite the recent arrival of Kieron Dyer and the defenders committing a succession of errors that are contributing to their own downfall.
On Saturday, even the previously reliable Jason Steele was struck by the general malaise, slipping at the most inopportune of moments to concede the indirect free-kick that led to Jason Scotland's 76th-minute winner.
Throw in a creeping sense of nervousness and you have all the requisite ingredients for a wholesale collapse that can rapidly wreck a season. With Leeds United visiting the Riverside tomorrow, Tony Mowbray's job is to ensure that the damage does not continue into a sixth consecutive fixture.
“We can't be thinking about the league or what other teams are doing, we just need to get back to winning ways as quickly as possible and then our league position will look after itself,” said the Boro boss. “We went through December winning games, but as I said at the time, all we were doing was accumulating points.
“For 25 games, all we did was accumulate points, winning games, losing some and drawing the odd one. When you get down to the last ten or so games, then you're into the business end of things, but you've got to be in a position to try to achieve what you want. “We've got 16 games left to go. We're still accumulating points, although we obviously haven't accumulated any in the last five matches.”
The most remarkable thing about Boro's recent slump is that it has not had a major effect on the club's league position. The Teessiders started the year in third position and have only slipped to sixth, two points clear of Brighton in seventh.
Apart from leaders Cardiff, who have cruised 11 points clear, no one is stringing together a strong enough sequence of results to pull away from the chasing pack, but Boro's luck can surely not hold out much longer, and Mowbray concedes his side will almost certainly have to claim around 30 points from their remaining 16 matches to make the play-offs.
“If you can get to the mid-70s or 80s, then there's a fair chance you're going to make the play-offs,” he said. “We've been stuck on 47 for way, way too long.
“We've got to get into the 50s and if you do that then because the games come so thick and fast, within a couple of weeks you can be passing the 60-point mark. If you don't get over 70 points, and probably up towards 75 or 76, you ain't going to make the play-offs.”
To win more than half of their remaining matches, Boro's players will have display more mental strength than they illustrated at the weekend.
Having conceded an early goal to Jim O'Brien, whose sixth-minute strike took a hefty deflection off George Friend before looping over Steele, Mowbray's men successfully got themselves into a winning position at the start of the second half.
Mustapha Carayol, whose pace and direct running caused sporadic problems down the left-hand side, pressured Stephen Foster into an ill-advised back-pass that was saved by Luke Steele, and followed up to slot home the rebound.
Curtis Main, whose half-time introduction for an out-of-sorts Lukas Jutkiewicz increased Boro's attacking threat markedly, headed home Rhys Williams' deflected cross to claim his first goal of the season, but the hosts were unable to see things out.
Rory Delap's long throw caused all sorts of problems despite the presence of five Boro players in the six-yard box, enabling an unmarked Scott Golbourne to tap home.
And when Steele was forced to handle Seb Hines' back-pass after he slipped in his own penalty area, Scotland drove the ball into the net via a deflection off a prone Nicky Bailey.
It all fed into a narrative of crippling nervousness, but Carayol is confident his team-mates are mentally strong enough to put recent set-backs behind them when they take on Leeds.
“I don't think we've lost our belief,” he said. “Confidence has taken a knock by recent results, but we just have to pick ourselves up. Other than the two goals we conceded, I think we can take that second-half performance forward and hopefully get a result on Tuesday.
“We put them on the back foot for half-an-hour, but we're lacking a bit of luck at the moment and you could see that in the goals they scored. We've just got to dig in and work hard again on Tuesday and hopefully get the right result.”
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