GEORGE FRIEND insists Middlesbrough are not about to panic after back-to-back home defeats allowed the play-off chasing pack to close the gap in the race for the Premier League.

Boro’s recent disappointments at the Riverside Stadium have made it unlikely that they will finish in the automatic promotion spots, with second-placed Leeds United now 15 points clear of the Teessiders.

But Tony Pulis’ side, who should have been more than a goal to the good before Preston turned things around on Wednesday night with less than half an hour to go, remain fifth – even if the advantage to seventh is down to just three points.

Friend insists now is the time to be positive and there is no reason for anyone to panic as Boro look to finish the campaign strongly in the hope of returning to the top-flight come May.

“It’s in our hands,” said the left-back, ahead of a trip to Aston Villa on Saturday. “In danger of dropping out would be sitting level with the teams below, or having one point more, I think we are still in a good position. We are looking up, forward, not behind.

“It was a disappointment not to score more on Tuesday, but if you look at what we did before the sending-off of Daniel Ayala then you would have to think we would have gone on to win it. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I think the Preston staff would have to say we were in a strong position.”

The galling thing is that prior to the last two home defeats – which has seen them throw a one-goal lead away in both – they had closed the gap on the top two by claiming seven points from a possible nine.

Against Preston in particular, Boro had more than enough chances to put the game to bed after Ashley Fletcher’s goal, only for Alex Neil’s team to make the most of referee Keith Stroud’s decision to send Ayala off for a strong, last-ditch tackle on Brandon Barker.

Friend said: “Let’s not forget it is only the last two games really. I thought the games before that, against a good Blackburn team, I thought we played really well. We controlled the game there.

“The performances can get lost away from home a little bit, and I thought the boys did well at Wigan too. There’s more emphasis at the moment on form because we have not won either of our last two home games, but since the turn of the year we have shown consistency and solidarity as well.

“I think the fans should look at the first 60 minutes before that red card and take faith from that and put the faith in us to reproduce that again. If we have 11 men on the pitch for 90 minutes we probably win those games.

“We have had some good performances, if you go right back to the start of the season, but I do think we are controlling games a bit more in the shape we have. It allows us to attack a bit more, while we are defending well too.”

Only the Championship’s bottom two have scored fewer goals than Boro at home this season, while they have only scored 40 in 37 league games.

Friend, recalling how Boro went eight games without a goal under Aitor Karanka in 2014, said: “We have to be better from set-pieces. That’s not the forward players, that’s everyone coming up from the back.

“The more we bang on about it, the more pressure we put on ourselves. Under Aitor I remember we went I don’t know how many games without scoring, we kept going on and on but we didn’t do too badly in the end (play-off final and promotion in the next two seasons).

“It’s a bit of a psychological thing but it’s also a bit of luck as well. There were a few deflections, where ankles, knees prevented it from going in against Preston but hopefully they will come.”

Regardless of how Pulis has bemoaned the lack of converted chances on a regular basis this season, the collective frustration was clear after the Preston defeat because it stemmed from Ayala’s dismissal.

Ayala will now serve a four match ban, and Friend said: “It’s a bit a bugbear of mine, the whole tackling thing. It’s such a grey area. It’s like the handball rule.

“When there is a tackle like that and everyone says ‘what a great tackle' and then the referee is humming and ahhhing and pulls out a red card, it is so disappointing.

“I even spoke to the lad who got tackled and he thought it was a good tackle to be fair. He thought it was powerful but fair.

“Being a defender myself you have to enjoy that part of the game. Defending is an art. Dani was the last man there and it was a fantastic tackle in my view.

“It’s hard to tell whether it’s going out of the game. One week that won’t be a foul and the next it is a red card, so it’s hard to tell. It’s an opinion of the referee.

“At the time he has said he lunged in with two feet and when you watch it back he hasn’t. I thought it was a fantastic tackle, and as a defender you have to enjoy that sometimes as much as scoring a goal, especially when you don’t score that many like me. If you get a chance to make a tackle like that, then you do it.

“I feel for Dani because that’s his second red in a short space of time. For me I don’t think he deserved to be sent off. I have said what I think about it, it’s gone and we move on.”