TONY Mowbray has a simple description of Middlesbrough's ongoing task in the Championship. “We accumulate points,” said the Boro boss, in the wake of his side's latest resounding defeat at Crystal Palace. “I keep saying that's what we've been doing, and it's what we're carrying on trying to do.”
The refrain has become a common one in recent weeks as Mowbray has attempted to downplay the significance of the Teessiders' dramatic downturn in form since the start of the year. If it's just about gathering enough points to get you to where you want to be at the end of the season, it doesn't matter how you compile them or whether there are periods where results are rather harder to come by than at other stages of the campaign.
Fine. But if you're going to talk about “accumulating points”, then at some stage you have to start accumulating them. And since the start of 2013, it is problems rather than points that Middlesbrough have been assembling.
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Three points from a possible 21 is a desperately poor return this calendar year, and while Boro continue to boast a four-point cushion to Brighton in seventh position, the days when they could be regarded as near certainties for a top-six finish are long since over.
Brighton and Blackburn both have a game in hand, and with 14 matches still to go, there is every chance Boro will have to win at least half of their remaining fixtures to feature in the play-offs.
On the evidence of Saturday's humiliating collapse at Selhurst Park, a performance every bit as callow and inept as their previous away outing when they also conceded four goals at Ipswich, it is hard to see where those seven victories are going to come from.
“Regardless of any negativity, we've got enough points to be in the top six of this division,” said Mowbray. “We've earned those points, and between now and the end of the season, we have to make sure we earn enough to stay there.
“I'm not concerned about what the teams below us are doing. We have to look after ourselves. I'm not going to worry about Brighton – the day I'll worry about Brighton is the day they come to the Riverside. I can't do anything about anybody else's results. If we keep winning football matches, no one will catch us. I don't look over my shoulder, I look forward. Can we get second spot?”
Second spot? It hardly seems realistic, although in fairness, Boro are finishing second in just about every game they enter at the moment.
They certainly never looked like coming out on top against Palace from the moment they conceded a typically chaotic goal in the opening ten minutes.
Faris Haroun's air kick enabled Wilfried Zaha to surge past stand-in full-back Andy Halliday, and the winger squared for Glenn Murray to score his first goal of yet another productive afternoon.
In Zaha, a £15m January signing for Manchester United who has been loaned back to Palace for the remainder of the season, and Murray, the Championship's leading goalscorer with a staggering 26 league goals, Eagles boss Ian Holloway can call on two of the most talented players outside the top-flight.
Zaha, in particular, was sensational at the weekend, beating both Halliday and Stuart Parnaby at will, and setting up a succession of chances for his team-mates.
For all that Boro are an honest, hard-working bunch, the longer the season has gone on, the more it has become apparent that they lack the sprinkling of star dust that the best teams in the Championship possess.
Where is their 20-goal a season man or dynamic creative force? Maybe you can't expect to have one if you have to do your summer shopping at Walsall and Bristol Rovers, but while Boro's organisation and relative strength in depth papered over a number of cracks in the first half of the season, they now look like a side lacking leadership, belief and inspiration.
Defensively, they were all over the place at Palace, with George Friend struggling in his new role at centre-half and Andre Bikey mixing the occasional crunching challenge with a series of routine errors.
While Grant Leadbitter attempted to hold things together at the base of midfield, he was fighting a losing battle for long periods, and there is surely a case for recalling Nicky Bailey to provide some much-needed ballast when Boro travel to Burnley tomorrow.
Further forward, Boro's attacking midfield system malfunctioned repeatedly at Selhurst Park, and for all that Mowbray likes to modify his team to reflect the threat of the opposition, perhaps it is time to prioritise continuity and solidity over experimentation.
Up front, things are even worse, with Lukas Jutkiewicz struggling for form and, in the absence of the injured Scott McDonald, no one else looking like scoring on a regular basis.
“I've got no excuses for the performance,” said Mowbray. “Where does it come from? Individual errors. Goals cost you games. The players are very disappointed, but it's not as though it's an isolated situation. We went to Ipswich two weeks ago and conceded four goals as well.
“We will lose games between now and the end of the season, but we've only drawn two all year so it's about the games we win. We're well capable of winning football matches, as we showed on Tuesday (against Leeds), and as we showed by winning five out of six in December. We have to get back to that sort of form.”
Trailing to Murray's opener, Boro were comprehensively outplayed for the remainder of the game, save for a brief ten-minute period at the end of the first half that saw former Newcastle centre-half Peter Ramage clear Haroun's effort off the line.
Ramage doubled Crystal Palace's lead three minutes after the interval, sweeping home from close range after Murray headed Stephen Dobbie's corner back towards goal. Bikey appeared to be well positioned to prevent Ramage scoring, but opted not to make a challenge as his opponent swivelled into position.
Two became three nine minutes later, as Murray picked up a loose ball and drilled a superb 25-yard drive into the right-hand corner. From a Boro perspective, that was the only Palace goal that could be described as unpreventable.
The visitors reduced the arrears ten minutes from time as Ishmael Miller's deft back-heel enabled Haroun to break clear to score.
But there was still time for Kevin Phillips to have the final say, with the veteran substitute holding off Friend to drill a low shot past Jason Steele.