AS he attempted to lift spirits in the wake of Saturday’s home defeat to Norwich City, Tony Pulis spoke of embarking on an “eight-game season”.

If his side fails to beat Bristol City this evening, his comments will almost certainly ring true. Slip up again tonight, and there is every chance Middlesbrough’s season will end after eight matches rather than the 11 that would be required to achieve promotion via the play-offs.

It is an 11-game season that Boro should be targeting, but a place in the play-offs felt a long way off as they were failing to overcome Norwich at the weekend. True, losing to the league leaders is hardly a disgrace, and Boro were the better side for the first half of Saturday’s game, only for their failings in front of goal to prove damaging once again.

The statistics are damning though, and while the ongoing slide has accelerated markedly in the last month, with Pulis’ side picking up a solitary point from their last five games, it is a downturn that has been a long time in the making. Middlesbrough have won just three of their last 15 home matches, and for all that Pulis might bemoan refereeing decisions and misfiring strikers, the issues go much deeper than the odd mistake.

The question, as a buoyant Bristol City side prepare to visit the Riverside, is whether the tide can be turned. Can Boro rediscover the defensive solidity that provided such a solid platform in the first half of the season, or will they continue to leak sloppy goals? Can they find a way to break down well-organised opposition defences, or are their attacking resources simply not good enough to sustain a successful promotion push? And most important of all, can they muster the confidence and swagger that is required to dispel the cloud of negativity that has descended on Teesside in the last few months?

“It’s disappointing, but we have to go again,” said Adam Clayton, who returned to the side for the first time in more than two months at the weekend. “One win can change everything.

“We’ve got to keep preparing right and keep going, and make sure we are getting on the end of chances. We’re having good chances and playing not bad football, we just need one to go over the line.”

While Boro are desperate to reverse their form, Bristol City will be keen to build on their weekend win at Sheffield United. Their success at Bramall Lane lifted them above Boro in the table – they also have a game in hand on the Teessiders – and tonight’s game offers an opportunity to land a potentially decisive blow on their rivals.

“I think we’ve got to believe, haven’t we? I think games like the weekend’s cement that belief,” said City boss Lee Johnson. “There’s nine rounds to go to give us half a chance of making it. There’s a lot of teams under a lot of pressure, but we feel we can play freely.”

Middlesbrough (probable, 5-4-1): Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Flint, Fry, Friend; Howson, Mikel, Besic, Fletcher; Assombalonga.