DANIEL AYALA claims Middlesbrough have gained meagre reward for their efforts so far this season, and argues their latest defeat at Cardiff City should be another filed in the ‘lost opportunity’ department.

Boro’s stand-in captain has acknowledged that nine points from eight matches is not the kind of return he was hoping for at a club with promotion ambitions.

But Ayala is also adamant that any firm predictions are best saved until the turn of the year, by which time he expects Jonathan Woodgate’s imprint to be more discernible than it was in South Wales where his side succumbed too easily for the skipper’s liking.

A needless own goal by Ashley Fletcher in only the second minute proved decisive, but Boro’s inadequate response left Ayala frustrated.

“The manner of the defeat is very disappointing – to lose 1-0 from an own goal from a corner – but we didn’t pass the ball well enough,” said the Spaniard. “It is difficult to play against Cardiff in the way they set up. They hit long balls and fight for second balls, so it’s always difficult to get rhythm into the game.

“I felt we matched them and they didn’t have many chances. But it’s difficult when you don’t create chances to score goals. I thought we would be more comfortable and calm on the ball. We have been quite good at creating chances before this, but not here.”

The defeat leaves Boro back in 15th place in the early Championships table, already six points off the play-off places.

It’s not a huge gap and with successive home games to come – against Sheffield Wednesday and Preston – the Teessiders could soon find themselves closer to the pace-setters at the top of table.

Whether or not they have the depth and quality to make a challenge for promotion remains to be seen, but Ayala insisted they must look forward and not linger for too long on games like this one where they had the majority of the ball but did so little with it.

“We need to focus on the two home games we now have and get some points. We have been playing quite well at home,” said the defender. “We should have more points than we have got. But that’s past now. We have to look forward and keep working.

“It’s too early yet to see who’s going to be fighting for the play-offs, or going up automatically. It won’t be until after Christmas that you see that.

“It’s early days, so we just need to focus on picking up points and then we will see after Christmas where we are.”

Ayala was part of a three-man defence employed by Woodgate in a bid to give extra ballast in the central areas to counter Cardiff’s liking for hitting countless crosses from all angles.

The problem came when wing-backs Anfernee Dijksteel and Marvin Johnson sat so deep to counter the attacking threat of Cardiff’s Josh Murphy and Gavin White that three at the back soon became five – giving Boro few options when they tried to counter.

Aside from a few promising touches soon after Fletcher had headed past his own goalkeeper from a corner, Boro’s attacks were mostly kept at arm’s length by a disciplined Cardiff defence.

Paddy McNair was well off target with a couple of first-half attempts and the expected upsurge from Boro in the second period never really materialised.

Most of their moves petered out long before they reached an isolated Britt Assombalonga and the only real opportunity came when George Saville hoisted a shot over the bar after Ryan Shotton had won a knock-down.

What made it a frustrating afternoon for Woodgate was that Cardiff rarely looked like they were going to add to their early lead, either. Apart from a flashing header by striker Omar Bogle that clipped the top of the crossbar, when he got in front of Shotton, Neil Warnock’s team were just as toothless as Boro.

“You have to match Cardiff physically, I thought we did that throughout the game, but we didn’t show enough quality on the ball,” admitted Woodgate. “We didn’t create enough chances for our forwards, who were basically starved of the ball. I thought at times we did okay, but it was that final ball. It needed to be played through with more quality which didn’t happen.

“You need to come here and roll your sleeves up and graft. I thought we did that, but the passing wasn’t good enough and we show that every day in training, that’s the disappointing thing.”

Fletcher worked hard to atone for his error, but it was an odd own goal that decided things. The striker who has not scored for Boro since August 13 got his body the wrong side of an in-swinging corner from Murphy, and when the ball glanced off his head, it could not have been better placed to beat Darren Randolph.

Woodgate made reference to the Bernabeu – and an own goal he once scored there playing for Real Madrid – as he tried to stress that Fletcher should not linger too long on his mistake.

“I have scored an own goal at the Bernabeu. It happens. We move on and get on with it. Hopefully he will score a couple of goals against Sheffield Wednesday.”

It was about the only parallel with Real Madrid that could have been made from a low-quality encounter.