MIDDLESBROUGH boss Tony Mowbray is backing his team to bounce back in a mammoth month of testing clashes against the big boys.
The Teessiders had clawed out of the basement on the back of an unbeaten run of six games that included four of the bottom six. But a disappointing 1-0 defeat to fellow strugglers Crystal Palace brought that revival to a juddering halt.
And now Boro – just six points above the drop spots – face a tough few weeks facing four teams in the top seven with fourth-placed Swansea, runaway leaders QPR and second-placed Forest all visiting, plus an intimidating trip to Millwall.
“We have a big, big month and we have some huge tests in February,” Mowbray admitted. “We’ve some difficult opposition in February and they will pose us some big problems.
“But we will work hard and keep trying to pick up points. We have had a good run but we know we are still in a fight to get away from the bottom of the table.
“Losing the unbeaten run at Palace was disappointing – but I have no fears about the way this team will respond. I’m sure we will bounce straight back.”
It was a familiar story for Boro. A team that started with seven academy graduates on the pitch dominated possession for long spells and carved out some good chances and rattled the woodwork before one fatal mistake at the back cost them.
Defender Seb Hines let what looked a harmless ball forward squeeze under his studs midway through the first half, and allowed Palace hitman James Vaughan to burst into the box to force home a shot via a defelection off Jonathan Grounds which looped over keeper Jason Steele.
“It was very disappointing,” said Mowbray. “You would hope that it is not very often a game comes down to just one mistake, but that has happened to us quite a few times now.
“The nature of the goal was unfortunate and it was just one moment’s lapse of concentration by Seb Hines. We still had men back and it should have been dealt with but then it took the deflection, you can’t legislate for that.”
Boro faced a tough task at Palace. The revived side had gone seven unbeaten at home leaking only four goals and showed why as a massed defence dug in deep and invited Boro to try to break them down.
Boro accepted the invitation and piled on the early pressure. They had the lion’s share of possession and they passed and probed neatly in a lively opening spell.
Leroy Lita glanced a header wide from a Tony McMahon cross early on then on 18 minutes Nicky Bailey’s quick free-kick to Julio Arca saw his snap-shot rattled the bar. Boro went close again, Kris Boyd’s 30-yard thunderbolt sizzling just over.
And they really should have scored on 28 minutes when Jonathan Franks flicked a ball to the edge of the box for Lita, who burst forward but with a defender bearing down, stabbed a low effort under the advancing keeper but wide of the post.
Boro were made to pay as Palace weathered the storm and broke out to take the lead on 36 minutes. Hines failed to cut out a routine ball and Baughan cut into the box and drifted to the left before drilling in a low shot that looped off Grounds and dropped in.
Boro beavered away but couldn’t find a way through Palace’s massed ranks at the back and several times almost got caught by the home side’s lightening raids.
On 54 minutes a 20-yard effort from former Newcastle man Darren Ambrose sent Steele full length to save, then Grounds had to stretch to block Vaughan’s effort from the rebound.
After that the game slipped into a coma as Boro had the bulk of the play but ran out of ideas, and rarely looked like breaking Palace’s resolve at the back.
CRYSTAL PALACE: Speroni; Clyne, McCarthy, Gardner, Moxey, Zaha, Marrow, Wright, Ambrose (Scannell 62), Vaughan (Iversen 79), Easter (Counago 71). Subs (not used): Price, Davis, Barrett, Garvan.
Booked: Easter, Zaha.
Goal: Vaughan 36.
MIDDLESBROUGH: Steele; McMahon, Hines, Bates (Grounds 22), Bennett, Franks (Park 46), Bailey, Taylor, Arca, Boyd (McDonald 59), Lita. Subs (not used): Ripley, Haas, Halliday, Smallwood.
Attendance: 14,060. Referee: Roger East (Wiltshire).