Middlesbrough were expected to push for a place back in the Premier League by the majority of experts penning an early season preview back in the summer. Fans flocked to buy season tickets confident The Smoggies could live up to expectations but, if they had their way, regulars at the Riverside would’ve hoped to have done it through a top-two finish.
Failing to win 26 of their first 44 league games this season means that is now impossible, leaving Tony Pulis and co to chase down a top-six berth that would grant them access to the play-offs and an extended season. Seen as a lottery, it’s not ideal but coming out the other end of a crucial Easter weekend it’s now a scenario everyone connected to the club would grab with both hands.
Stats of 18 wins, 13 draws and 13 defeats has Boro sitting seventh in the Championship table, level on points with Derby County and only five ahead of Swansea in 10th. They still have time on their side, but Middlesbrough look to be up against it, with The Rams having a game in hand while last season’s fifth-place finishers suffered a painful defeat on Easter Monday, a result that threatens to knock their season off-course.
Easter Monday defeat
Boro boosted their chances with a treble of wins this spring, catapulting themselves into contention, but they failed to build on that purple patch when ending on the wrong side of a 3-0 result at the City Ground on 22 April. Lolley broke the deadlock on 39 minutes from the penalty spot, giving Nottingham Forest a deserved lead and the win was cemented thanks to a second from Milosevic on 64. Lolley took his goal tally to 11 for the season when scoring his second of the day and Forest’s third, delivering a body blow to Pulis.
The beaten manager declared himself disappointed when addressing the press at full-time but pinned the blame on injuries and a shortage of cover at the back. The former Premier League pilot felt let down but refused to throw the towel in, telling fans the club still has a chance of going up and the players will dust themselves down and go again on Saturday when hosting lowly Reading in a must-win.
Defeat to a Nottingham Forest side who went into the game on the back of four defeats and had nothing to play for was a bitter pill to swallow but Middlesbrough won each of their previous three league outings and can take confidence from that, putting Monday’s loss down to a mere slip. The fact half of the top-six failed to win their last game took the pressure off, slightly.
Middlesbrough got their first win of the month when beating relegation-threatened Bolton at the Macron, walking away with a simple 2-0, before dealing out a 1-0 beating to Hull at the Riverside next time out. They completed the hat-trick with a hard-fought 1-0 at home to Stoke on Good Friday.
Three games, nine points, four goals scored and zero conceded, it’s little wonder those camped in the stands wearing the famous colours of the Yorkshire club allowed themselves to dream of a return to the top table of English football, where they’d again rub shoulders with some of the game’s elite names on a regular basis.
They suffered the sting of a failed play-off bid 11 months ago but do have vital experience of battling through the knockout phases and that will stand them in good stead if they can claw their way back into the prize places before the finish line.
Following Monday’s result, Pulis sets up against Reading on Saturday in game 45, before taking on a Rotherham side who have been hopeless so far this year. Two games you’d expect to return six points, but nothing can be taken for granted at this level.
Bookies remain doubtful
Bookmakers aren’t holding their breath to see Boro pull off a great escape and the money men appear to have written off the team’s chances following Monday’s loss. Some firms, including William Hill, are offering a chunky 20/1 on Middlesbrough to be promoted at the end of the season and that’s a price that may just catch the eye of value hunters.
There’s still much work to do if they are to grab a top-six spot but if we judge them on those three wins and trio of clean-sheets, perhaps traders have been a little hasty. If they do make it to the play-offs where the slate is wiped clean and form in the regular season counts for little, there will be nothing nearly as big as 20/1 on the table, that much is guaranteed.
Fancy the safety net of a top-six finish? If you pick through the betting you’ll find market best price 11/4 at Sky Bet on Middlesbrough ending in the highest half-dozen and that bet will be paid out as a winner, regardless of what they do in the play-offs. Boro could fall at the first hurdle, but as long as they end sixth, the profits from that bet will be dropped into your account.
Lions look safe
Elsewhere in the Championship and we catch-up on how the Easter Monday results effects the betting. Norwich are now no more than 2/7 at William Hill to win the league, ahead of Sheffield United’s 8/1 with Betfred. That seems a foregone conclusion.
At the other end of the charts and you’ll find Bolton and Rotherham are already relegated, joining an Ipswich side who have been down for quite some time now. Could Millwall be sucked into trouble, replacing The Millers? 25/1 (bet365) makes it unlikely.