TONY Mowbray is by his own admission not an especially religious man, and yet the sweet-toothed Middlesbrough manager has for the past few years forgone chocolate for Lent.
It would be cruel but not wholly inaccurate to ponder why his players have opted to give up winning football matches until the Easter Bunny arrives.
Middlesbrough have, for the first time in five months, slipped out of the Championship play-off places, where they had until recently taken up seemingly permanent residency.
It is a strange anomaly that tonight’s FA Cup tie is more of an unwanted distraction for the so-called small team than it is for Chelsea, the current champions of Europe.
Championship leaders Cardiff City arrive on Teesside on Saturday. Middlesbrough can ill afford to lose again; defeat would make it eight losses in ten league games this year.
However, Mowbray will play the strongest side available to him tonight. He wants to win and progress to the next round, although even just one more game is the last thing he needs.
Chelsea, despite their current struggles, remain a formidable team and so Middlesbrough will need to produce a performance far beyond anything they have shown this season to cause an upset.
Mowbray said: “We are not going to go all-out attacking against Chelsea. They will stick it in our net if we do, because on paper they are better than us.
“They’ve beaten Barcelona and Bayern Munich, but we can still make life difficult for them as we have showed against two Premier League clubs this season in beating Sunderland and narrowly losing to Swansea.
“We will try to frustrate and compete with Chelsea, even with the quality they have at their disposal.
“We want to make it an uncomfortable night for them. Old Trafford is next for whoever wins and financially for us that is a huge bonus, but it would also be an opportunity to test ourselves against the best team in the country.”
Chelsea will have more of the ball tonight and will spend much of their time in the Middlesbrough half of the field.
Mowbray likes a statistic when it backs up what his team attempts to do with regards to playing a passing game. But for once he would accept the opposition outplaying his own team, as long as the scoreboard had a favourable look by the end of the match.
Mowbray said: “You don’t get points for possession.
“I’m sure Chelsea will get a lot more passes than we do. We made 500 passes against Millwall, against their 150 passes, yet they beat us.
“You have to put the ball in the net and keep it out of your own net.
“I won’t be too disappointed if Chelsea have 500 our 600 passes, but we have 100 and win 2-1.
“Take, for instance, Chelsea in those Barcelona games last season.
“How on earth did Chelsea win?
“With ten men against the best team in the world, the best team for decades and still managing to come out on top. They found a way, so can we find a way on the night.”
Mowbray hasn’t quite come in for the same flak Rafa Benitez has put up with of late, but he’s not escaped criticism.
It hurts Middlesbrough fans to question one of their own, and yet results are such that even this local hero can’t avoid some finger-pointing in his direction.
Mowbray said: “Anyone who tells you criticism doesn’t hurt is not being truthful, because we are human beings.
“You have to detach from it a little bit, but you have to understand. You are the guy making the decisions. You hope to get more right than wrong.
“I’ve had criticism at every football club. Show me a manager who hasn’t.
“Look at Jose Mourinho, one of the best managers in the world, a great coach and manager but there’s 78% of Real Madrid fans (in a pool) who want Michael Laudrup as their next manger.
“How is Mourinho feeling today? What’s he telling his mam?
“The harshness of it from the people who criticise is one thing. They think the manager doesn’t care, it’s not his team, it’s not his club.
“But I do care passionately, and why would I listen to you? Put it this way, why would I listen to his opinion or her opinion.
“You either fail or succeed doing it your own way.” Tonight is a strange one. A win for Middlesbrough would be great, of course, but that would mean a trip to Old Trafford for the quarter-final and it doesn’t affect their league situation, although victory would hopefully do something for the loss of confidence surrounding the club.
Mowbray said: “There is an anxiety in the crowd at the moment.
“We have to find a way to win football matches. That is my job, I’m not finding the answer, and the players are not finding the answer.
“It is a one-off game. Will Chelsea get behind us?
“Will they hurt us? Will they have counter-attacks? Will we score when the chances come?
“Will someone get a head on a corner? I don’t know, but we will be doing our best.”