MIDDLESBROUGH head coach Aitor Karanka has refused to write off his side’s play-off chances despite a third successive goalless draw, insisting any judgement on their top-six credentials should not be made until the end of March.
While they should have been celebrating three, the Teessiders had to settle for another point, but despite their failings in front of goal the result actually narrowed the gap to sixth to eight points after Reading were beaten at home to Sheffield Wednesday.
In reality, Middlesbrough have to start turning draws into wins to give themselves a chance of mounting a late challenge for a play-off place, but with 16 games left to play there is plenty of time for them to do so in an unpredictable Championship.
Having got to within five points of sixth at the start of the year, Boro are well aware a run of two or three wins could catapult them right back into contention and the fact they have only lost one in ten suggests Karanka has balanced the ship – the key now is finding a consistency between attack and defence.
“The play-offs are not in my mind,” said Karanka. “The next game against Watford is in my mind. We have three months to fight and win games.
“When we get to the end of March we can see what position we are in, but at this moment the important thing is the game against Watford next week.”
The Spaniard watched his team create chance after chance against Gary Bowyer’s men, but they lacked a killer instinct in front of goal despite the arrival of Danny Graham from Sunderland.
It will take the Gateshead-born striker time to get his match fitness to a level that works in Karanka’s high-pressure style, but while he admitted to being angry after last weekend’s stalemate at Doncaster, the Boro head coach felt his side did enough to win the game.
“We had a lot of chances to score. Last week against Doncaster I was very very sad and very angry with the team but in the first half we played very well and had a lot of chances, but we couldn’t score.
“We need to try to concentrate more and cut out mistakes in front of goal. We need to work on it more in training. We had three or four chances in the first half and many corners.
“I’m not happy because we didn’t win the game, but I am proud of the team because they did all the things that I asked them to do. We need to keep playing like this and hopefully the goals will come.
“It's frustrating for me. We didn't play well against Doncaster and didn't deserve to win against Wigan, but we had a lot chances starting from the first few minutes - and didn't score. That’s football, though.”
While their problems in front of goal continue, Boro kept their eighth clean sheet in ten games. Karanka has undoubtedly made a difference to a back line that has been guilty of conceding sloppy goals, but the Boro head coach admits he would rather be talking about their goalscoring records.
He said: “It's another clean sheet but I prefer our records to be about goalscoring. It's still very important, though. The defence is working very well, much better than when I arrived here.
“Danny (Graham) and Lee (Tomlin) will be very important for us. Danny has experience and I hope he can bring goals to the team. He needs to work hard everyday to take on our style and intensity. When he gets there he will be very important for us.
“Muzzy and George deserve praise because they did very well. Their keeper did very well. There are other games when Shay Given has saved us but on this occasion their keeper saved Blackburn.”