AS Middlesbrough prepare to enter a season-defining run of three fixtures against rivals for a play-off place, Tony Pulis has challenged his players to make sure they make amends for their awful record against teams around them by securing a top six spot.

Boro lost their grip of sixth by losing at Sheffield United on Tuesday, providing a further reminder of how poor their results against teams in the top ten this season have been.

But with consecutive games coming up against Bristol City, Derby and Millwall, starting this afternoon, Pulis is adamant all of their troubles against the more fancied teams in the division can soon be forgotten about.

Much has been made of the fact Boro's only victory in 15 games against the Championship’s top ten was back in August when they defeated Sheffield United 1-0 at the Riverside – when the Blades were incensed that a late equaliser was ruled out.

But Pulis is keen to focus on what lies ahead, identifying the remaining matches as ones which can really get Boro motoring ahead of a potential play-off battle that could ultimately end in promotion back to the Premier League.

He said: “That first-half at Sheffield United on Tuesday and the performance at Burton before it was probably the only times where we have let ourselves down in respect of not being on the level they should be.

“You go back to the Fulham game at our place, we should have won two or three nil against a team that should win automatic promotion now, so you need the breaks as well.

“The record is not great but we now have an opportunity to change it in the next four games and then sit down and talk about it at the end of May and hopefully not the middle of May.

“We had a chat and I think it is a fantastic run-in, to play in games that you can affect where you are not relying on anyone else. I prefer the games like this. If we beat Bristol City, if we beat Millwall and if we beat Derby then it affects them.

“It not only helps us but it affects them. I prefer those games. I want the players to embrace this and enjoy it, give everything.

“If it doesn’t break for us like it didn’t against Fulham and Wolves, then fine, but at least we have had a right go at it.

“This can toughen the players up mentally too. If we win these games, you get belief that you can beat the teams around you. We need them to cross the line on Saturday, roll their sleeves up and play. You don’t get anything in this league unless you work hard.”

It is Middlesbrough’s poor return from the big games this season that has prevented them from really making a mark at the top end of the division.

Pulis, who took over on Boxing Day and has been in charge of six of those 15 games, accepts that but believes there is time to make up for those disappointments.

He said: “We have an opportunity to play three of the teams in the top ten in the next four games. We can eradicate all of that and hopefully we can do that in the next few games.

“The record is not good. I am not happy with it. The players shouldn’t be happy with it. We have an opportunity over the next four games, they are all in the shake up and if we take nine points from those three big games then that will shut everyone up.

“It’s great to be in this position, where you are playing for something really important. We could be mid-table and the season drifts away.

“We have everything to play for with four games to go. It’s fantastic as a sportsperson. They get paid a lot of money to enjoy these situations, not to worry about it. They have to enjoy it and understand the challenge.”

But the message Pulis has been stressing to his men ever since leaving Bramall Lane pointless is that they can’t afford to give teams a head start like they against the Blades, who were two up before the break due to two volleys from Lee Evans.

The former Stoke boss said: “It was frustrating the other night, we let ourselves down in a game knowing how important it was and what we needed to do.

“You can’t be slow out of the blocks, the first was a wonder strike and sometimes you have to take that on the chin. It was chalk and cheese from first to second half.

“We have the next round of games, that’s the only thing I am positive on. We have to be positive on how we play. Bristol City have gone a bit more direct, the two centre halves will have to play well. We will have to have a solid base.

“This is what it is all about. We are playing against a very good team. It’s us against them and we need to make sure the players give it their best. That’s what we have to do. We didn’t roll our sleeves up against Sheffield United. Second half we only had ten men and we played as if we only had 12 men.”