TONY PULIS has admitted that Middlesbrough’s chances of finishing in the top two have taken a hammering over the weekend, but wants his players to focus on doing what they can to keep hopes alive.

Boro are now 12 points shy of second spot after Saturday’s home defeat to Brentford coincided with victories for Norwich City, Leeds United and Sheffield United.

Middlesbrough do have a game in hand and those above them, although there are three matches to play before they catch up with that extra game by facing Bristol City at the Riverside Stadium on April 2.

The first of those is against Preston tomorrow night and then a trip to Aston Villa is followed by a home date with current leaders Norwich. It is a run of games that is sure to determine whether Middlesbrough’s fading hopes of a top two place can stay alive.

Asked what he thought of the standings now, Pulis said: “I think the results over the weekend have given everyone near the top of the table a bit of zip but we’ve just got to get as many points as possible in the remaining games.”

Middlesbrough will face a Preston side that is unbeaten in ten and growing in confidence after another victory over Blackburn on Saturday.

North End’s run of form has made West Brom, who have sacked Darren Moore, consider Preston manager Alex Neil for the job, although it is understood they hope to have first choice Slavisa Jokanovic on board before tomorrow’s game with Swansea.

Middlesbrough can’t really afford another slip up at the Riverside, only holding a four-point cushion over seventh place – and dropping out of the play-off zone would be an unthinkable blow at the end of the campaign.

If the Teessiders are going to stay firmly in the promotion race then a lot is likely to rest on the form of rejuvenated striker Ashley Fletcher.

After a difficult 20 months in the North-East after leaving West Ham United in a £6.5m deal, Fletcher has suddenly found himself being given more of an opportunity.

His second goal in consecutive home dates was scored against Brentford on Saturday and Fletcher has explained how last season’s loan with Sunderland, who suffered relegation to League One, has made him stronger.

Fletcher said: “I went to Sunderland last year, it was tough mentally, but I feel a better player for it. I went there and played for fans with such high expectations in a tough season, it was tough.

“This club has high expectations as well and we want to play in the Premier League, it’s about getting those wins to get us there starting with Preston on Wednesday.”

Fletcher’s performance against the Bees led to him being switched to the middle when Pulis made the controversial decision to replace leading scorer Britt Assombalonga with full-back George Friend when Boro led 1-0.

It was a move that didn’t go down well with Assombalonga or the supporters, but Fletcher is hoping his understanding with the £15m man gets another opportunity against Preston.

He said: “Off the field there is a group of lads who socialise, we all do, but especially me, Britt, Ryan Shotton, Adam Clayton and Darren Randolph, we all socialise off the pitch.

“If you have that then it can help off the pitch. I know where Britt is on the pitch and he knows where I am, we share the work and we benefit from that.

“I am enjoying playing with Britt, we have a good understanding off the field, and on the field it shows.

“It is good for me to get games and if I can repay the manager with more goals then that’s great and Britt has been helping me with that.”