JOINT top and still well placed? Or fourth and fading fast. It’s all in the eye of the beholder of course but Boro currently exist in both situations simultaneously after another crazy day in the Championship.
After losing to Leeds in a one-sided game Boro have squandered another golden chance to seize control of the promotion race after failing to make the possession and shots stats count in a disappointing defeat at Forest. Instead they have become enmeshed in a four-way summit split that makes the post-match debate all about perspective.
With 10 games to go Boro are level on points with the leaders. Whatever people say now, you’d have taken that in August. Boro are in a good position: while they are having a wear and tear wobble after nine games in 29 days, their rivals are also feeling the heat and dropping points. Derby let slip a two goal lead in stoppage time and have now picked up just one point in nine. Ipswich, Brentford and Watford all dropped points too. The collective creaking and serial slip-ups have gone on for weeks now.
Their destiny remains in their hands and while the run in is tough – they play five of their direct challengers – that gives them a chance to assert themselves and deliver some killer blows to the opposition. They can prove their credentials.
But equally it is clear that Boro have slipped up themselves. Three defeats and a draw in five games is their worst run of form all season. Boro have only kept two clean sheets in that sorry sequence. And worst, they are struggling to score. All three against mediocre Millwall were well worked but other than that they have been flaccid up front.
Against Forest, as at home to Leeds, they dominated possession, they picked and probed and passed patiently looking to unlock a massed defence and laboured away to create a blizzard of chances without every really troubling the keeper.
Kike makes it easy for the keeper with a gentle poke into his arms
The stats showed Boro had 26 shots but just four were on target. Most flew high or wide or were charged down in a crowded box. Kike stabbed against the post from close range on the turn and put a back-heel just wide and there were a couple of routine saves from Darlow but this time there wasn’t even the consolation of the keeper picking up the man of the match gong after having “a worldie.”
Forest were probably second best but did their job well. They dropped deep, dug their trenches and strung out tactical barbed wire with two rigid banks of four – that is what Dougie Freedman does – and invited Boro to try to find a way through. And they failed.
So the strikers are taking the flak with Kike the new popular scapegoat. But Boro were caught twice on the break by a Forest side that spent much of the game playing counter-attacking football as if they were the “away” side and the defence must take responsibility for that. Boro failed to close down for the well struck opener and Nsue lost the ball and Kalas – other wise impressive – was barged aside by dangerman Antonio for the second.
Boro didn’t play badly. Dougie Freedman was quick to praise Boro after the game and said they were the best side in the division. They dominated possession. They passed crisply. They put together some fluid attacking movement. But they weren’t great. They lacked punch in the penalty box. The final ball in from the flanks was predictable and easily cleared. And several times they got caught napping on the counter. They will come away disappointed, frustrated and smarting at the set-back but the harsh truth is that Forest made their game plan work more effectively than Boro did.
Aitor was angry. We’ve said that a few times over the last few weeks. I think he is getting frustrated at the failure to convert the possession and chances and also feeling the pressure as the season comes to the sharp end – although he was quick to point out that pressure comes with the territory for a team with ambition.
But Boro are not stumbling in isolation. Everyone at the top is taking it in turns to wobble. Presented with a chance to break away team after team has shied away and crumbled. Bournemouth are back on track after five without a win. Boro have three times wasted chances to open up a lead. Derby have got the jitters. Ipswich and Brentford are fading. Right now it is Norwich and Watford’s turn to turn the screw but can they stay the pace? We’ll see as the season comes to the boil.
A crazy day finished with four teams on 66 points and the league leadership changed five times. Bournemouth were top after battering Fulham on Friday but the second the games kicked off Boro took poll position. Derby leapfrogged them by getting the opener against Birmingham then Boro’s goal put us back ahead for five minutes until Forest scored to put Derby back on top. The second Forest goal knocked Boro down to fourth then Derby were pegged back in stoppage time pushing Bournemouth – who had briefly been down to fourth when Boro, Derby and Watford were all winning – back to the top of goal difference.
It’s going to be like this all the way until the end now. Or until we win at Norwich to take control three games for the end.
Here’s the pre-match scene-setter…
BORO must be Forest fired up for a Tricky trip to (yet another) hoodoo ground. The table is tight as a gnats chuff after Bournemouth battered Fulham 5-1 on Friday. Just one point covers the top four. The stakes are high as our heroes go to the City Ground where they have won one just once since decimalisation for a game where they really need to pick up both points and momentum to propel them into the “Week of Destiny.”
Obviously, the consensus is that Boro have a “poor” record against Forest – especially at their place – and they cast a long pyschic shadow. And they are in good form too – their midweek defeat at Charlton was their first in seven – so there is much historically ingrained pessimism as well as the mounting pressure cooker jitters that come as standard in a summit scrap as intense and close as this.
Yet Boro haven’t lost at the City Ground in the league since 2011. And that was the last defeat to them in six games. Since that last lost Boro have drawn 0-0 and 2-2 away and won 2-1, 1-0 and 3-0 at home, the latter a one sided Boxing Day braying in front of a bumper crowd. So while the public perception is that Boro generally struggle, recent form suggests not. Forest fans may even think we have the Indian sign over them.
Spot kick specialist joins the festive fun as Forest are felled
Last time there was a fiery 2-2 draw in a pulsating game in which Jason Steele saved one penalty, Boro escaped another couple of strong shouts and clawed into a commanding 2-0 lead before contriving to let that slip in a chaotic last 20 minutes that was to become the hallmark of the final frantic days of the Tony Mowbray. My blog from the night was much shared (and praised) by Forest fans – but Mad Billy read it and wasn’t happy and I was threatened with a writ and a City Ground ban by the Forest legal people. Although by then there were so many people banned it was almost part of the press pack.
So what have we got? Boro’s historic hoodoo weighed up against the power of Football’s Inevitability Drive that suggests local lad, life-long fan and former Forest player Patrick Bamford is #NailedOn to score. Forest’s recent good form ending in midweek against Boro ending their “wobble” with a solid win against Millwall marked with three quality goals.
A win will take Boro back to the top. They know that. They know they need to get a good start going into the next three matches that even Aitor admits are massive. But everyone else is under pressure too – and given the results in recent weeks they are all wobbling as much as or more than Boro. It will come down to mental strength as much as ability over the games to come. And I think Boro have that.
My instinct is that Boro will stay strong and keep a clean sheet. Logic – and the bookies – suggest this will be a draw. So that makes it 0-0. But I believe in football fairytales and the power of the Inevitability Drive so my #DaftQuid is on Boro winning 1-0 (Bamford, 88).
Anyway…. usual routine: let’s have your scorecasts and predictions as to to how the game will pan out now and we’ll gather later on to laugh at/gasp in awe at your prescience. Then after the game you can post your on-the-whistle reports. I’ll put my own post-match impressions ASAP when I get back.