Middlesbrough 1 Bristol City 1

FIRST, the bad news. With just eight games of the season remaining, Middlesbrough are playing as poorly as they have all campaign. Now, the good. Everyone around them is faring even worse.

Saturday's fraught 1-1 draw with Bristol City extended Boro's winless run to four matches and means they have won just four of their 14 Championship games since the turn of the year.

Yet by Saturday evening they had climbed a place in the table and were higher than they had been at the start of March, a month that has seen them hammered by Leeds and Birmingham and held to draws by West Ham and now Bristol City.

Point by point, inch by inch, they are getting there. At times it is an excruciating process, and it was hard to derive too much satisfaction from their latest ragged display at the Riverside.

But in a race that nobody seems to want to win, a play-off place remains a realistic ambition. Winning might be a struggle at the moment, but Boro are faring no better or worse than their rivals.

"Let's not kid ourselves on, we are where we are," said an honest Tony Mowbray. "Winning football matches is hard work for us, but if we're running out of steam then everyone else around us seems to be as well.

"It's a competitive division. It looks as though Southampton are the team with the genuine quality and they're steaming away. But beneath them there's another ten teams or so who are all fighting at the same level.

"Week in, week out, teams drop points, but nobody seems to want to pull away. Reading have probably had the best results over the last couple of months, but having seen them a couple of times recently, they're just an honest hard-working team.

"We've just got to keep going. We've got two away games in a week now and the way this league is, there's no reason why we can't win one or both of those games and kick on."

Boro's away form is better than their record at the Riverside, where they have recorded fewer home victories than Coventry and Portsmouth, both of whom are in the bottom three.

They can therefore travel to Ipswich and Brighton this week with confidence, although they will surely have to improve on a weekend display that, particularly in the first half, lacked cohesion and confidence.

The Teessiders trailed to Hogan Ephraim's 13th-minute goal at the interval - the QPR loanee clipped a deft finish over Jason Steele after Stephen Pearson's through ball sent him galloping clear - and the deficit was merited.

Midfield was the problem area, with Nicky Bailey and Kevin Thomson too similar to form an effective central unit. The duo played alongside each other in front of the back four, and with Merouane Zemmama and Adam Hammill pulling wide, there was a vast chasm behind attackers Bart Ogbeche and Lukas Jutkiewicz.

In Mowbray's defence, the absence of Rhys Williams has restricted Boro's midfield options significantly, and Richie Smallwood, who had started at Upton Park, does not really offer anything different to Bailey or Thomson either. Hopefully, Barry Robson's return from suspension tomorrow will help.

To his credit, Mowbray addressed the issue at the interval, replacing Bailey with Malaury Martin, and the ploy produced rapid results.

Martin had scored a last-minute winner at Ashton Gate in December, and the Frenchman reprised his super-sub role again, latching on to Jutkiewicz's flick, twisting inside his marker and unleashing a venomous 25-yard drive that whistled past Bristol City goalkeeper Dean Gerken.

"Malaury doesn't score tap-ins," said Mowbray. "He does that every day in training, so I suppose you could ask me why he doesn't play in the team, but football's about a balance. You have to have a balance between players who can defend and attack."

That balance certainly looked better after the interval, but the closest Boro came to a winner was a close-range effort from Ogbeche that was superbly saved by Gerken.

Their cause was aided by the 75th-minute dismissal of Ryan McGivern, with the City full-back tugging down Jutkiewicz as he galloped towards the right-hand edge of the penalty area.

The foul began outside the box, so referee Colin Webster's decision not to award a penalty was correct, but Boro were aggrieved not to have been awarded a spot-kick in stoppage-time when Louis Carey appeared to check Hammill's progress unfairly.

Webster, who was infuriatingly inconsistent throughout, remained unmoved, and in truth a draw was no more than Middlesbrough merited for a laboured display that lacked spark.

"I don't think is a physical thing, I think it's more a case of mental fatigue," said Mowbray. "When I see some of the decision-making that's going on out there and some of the mistakes we're making in terms of the passing, it's not a physical thing, it's mental.

"Maybe I'm going to have to look at the squad a bit more to freshen things up. Malaury looked sharp when he came on, a player who hasn't played much football, and maybe the players who have been on the fringe are that bit sharper mentally."