BLOODY Cardiff again! Game over? Defeat has left Boro hopelessly adrift, five points behind the Welsh side and having played two more games. And with rampant Newcastle to come next week. And West Brom and Leicester still to play away. Making the play-offs isn’t impossible – yet – but it would take a dramatically improved Boro beating the Geordies and then embarking on a spectacular winning run to force our way back into it with seven wins, maybe eight wins, from the last 11 games.
And on the evidence of the frustratiing display at Cardiff I wouldn’t put money on it.
Cardiff were there for the taking: a bitterly divided club with chairman and manager at loggerheads, fans in open revolt against a board that has taken them to the brink of administration and a team in the middle of a recent wobble that has left them vulnerable to their annual play-off bottle job. But Boro could not take advantage of that brittle mindset by piling on the pressure.
Boro knew that it was a decisive match, that they had to be organised, motivated and focussed from the start and they had to win. And once again against Cardiff, when the moment came and the stakes were high they simply failed to deliver, either a display or a result. In truth, it was over after three minutes.
The first half was as poor a performance as any under Strachan. Disorganised from the off, lack-lustre, without spirit or spark or creativity. There was no coherent shape, no tempo, no drive and no response to the sickening and cheaply conceded early goal. For all the recent signs of growing mental strength, it was a shambolic 45 minutes in which there were no leaders visible in the team and as individuals they lost every personal battle in every area of the pitch.
Yes, Boro improved after the break. Yes there were chances: Leroy Lita headed over with a close range header, Wheater’s goal was ruled out because Lita stuck his hand up vaguely in the flightpath of the ball then in a fast and furious final ten minutes Marshall made two excellent saves from Gary O’Neil and one from Barry Robson and arguably they should have got something – although Cardiff could counter by saying they should have had a penalty and then they hit the bar in a stoppage time break.
But for Boro it was too little, too late. They had conceded the early goal and the initiative and in a game they really needed to win and there was no way back. Not without a cutting edge, For an hour after the goal they looked totally bereft of ideas, inspiration or quality. It was poor fare and does not bode well for the run in.
Three demoralising away defeats in a row to play-off rivals without scoring a goal suggests this team is well short of what is needed to make it to the knockout out phase or make progress should by some miracle they get there.
And worse still, it could be Newcastle that ram the last few nails into the coffin next week.
Oh well, there’s always next year.