Final Score: Middlesbrough 1 Millwall 2
A SEVENTH defeat from nine Championship matches since the turn of the year and a fall out of the play-off places for the first time since October.
Where has it all gone wrong for Middlesbrough?
Throw in the fact Boro actually sat top of the pile briefly in November when optimism of a Premier League return was high and it is easy to understand why frustrations have grown around the Riverside Stadium.
Where Tony Mowbray, the Boro boss, seemed to be able to mix up his side with regularity earlier in the season with results staying largely positive, whatever he tries now seems to come up short.
Whether it is the result of individuals losing form, players not being as fit as they were earlier in the campaign or costly mistakes, Middlesbrough are in desperate need of new vibrancy. They need to find their feet again quickly if they are to avoid another campaign in the second tier of English football.
Despite falling a point behind sixth-placed Brighton and letting slip a ten-point gap to seventh held in December, Mowbray is convinced his players still believe they can achieve their goals.
Chelsea might be next up in the FA Cup on Wednesday, but the Middlesbrough boss remains convinced they can lift themselves for when Championship football returns to the Riverside with the visit of the leaders Cardiff City on Saturday.
“Of course they believe, that’s why they come in to work,” said Mowbray.
“They want to be Premier League footballers and are working hard to get there. Unfortunately the injuries and the changing face of the team have not helped the team. We will stick together. The supporters have got to stick with the team.
“It’s easy to get negative but the team have to react, find it on the pitch and I am sure they will. You could see in the second half against Millwall that that’s what this group of players are like. They had to react and they did.”
It is that sort of reaction Middlesbrough need if they are going to reignite their stuttering push for promotion which is in serious danger of ending in huge disappointment.
If Middlesbrough continue to defend like they did in the first half against Millwall then they have got no chance of celebrating a return to the top-flight come Many.
Despite sticking with the same back four which kept a clean sheet at Burnley six days ago, gaps soon emerged in the Middlesbrough defence to allow Millwall to coast in to a two-goal half-time lead.
There might have been justified claims for offside for the opener but Middlesbrough should still have dealt with a James Henry crossfield freekick from the touchline better than they did.
Instead, left-back George Friend got himself in a mess with three away shirts around him and directed a diving header in to his own net.
That arrived in the 25th minute and 14 minutes later it was two. After another Middlesbrough attack had predictably broken down, Millwall attacked and the lively Benik Afobe’s pace and power got him away from both Andre Bikey and Friend.
Goalkeeper Jason Steele did enough to save Afobe’s shot but then Nicky Bailey was slow to react and Martyn Woolford was unmarked at the back post to slot in the rebound. Such goals are indicative of the problems Middlesbrough are enduring.
Mowbray, knowing his team have conceded 13 in their last six games, said: “It was a selfinflicted defeat, the nature of the goals we conceded, particularly the first one: a free-kick from 35 yards drifting in to our box and we have not dealt with it.
“Listen, it is what it is. No team can give goals away as cheaply as that and get away with it. It’s a recurring theme that the defence has changed considerably over the season.
I don’t want to make that an excuse. It is a problem.”
Curtis Main scores for Boro to give late hope
Four points from the last 27 available to Middlesbrough is simply not good enough and, as well as conceding goals, they rarely posed a threat until Mustapha Carayol and Ishmael Miller were introduced for Kieron Dyer and Rhys Williams at half-time.
After that Millwall rarely threatened and Middlesbrough buzzed around without seriously testing goalkeeper David Forde until Carayol’s low shot was turned behind for a corner on the hour.
Then Middlesbrough, who also threw on Scott McDonald, found greater purpose and Curtis Main pulled one back with quarter of an hour to go when he took a touch from Friend’s run and cross before side-footing over the line.
Main, with three goals since returning from a five month lay-off earlier this month, also volleyed wide shortly after and McDonald was rightly ruled offside when he flicked Carayol’s stoppage time cross off his marker and in to the net.
Mowbray said: “I see Curtis every day and when it ricochets to him ten yards out then, with either foot, he normally dispatches it clinically every day. Here it didn’t go in.
“You have to be careful you don’t over analyse things. We were winning ten out of 11 home games on the bounce and not a lot has changed except for personnel and confidence.
“It’s no good throwing everything in the bin and scrap what won us 11 games at home and banging it long. I can understand the frustration at times when an extra pass misses out but if that’s how we won all those games then we have to keep trying to do that to turn things around.”
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