MIDDLESBROUGH boss Tony Mowbray admitted the intensity of the congested fixture card is having an effect on his depleted squad as a listless performance saw them grind out a goalless home draw.
The team who a week earlier had shown a nationwide TV audience a display of zip and guile at Sunderland looked a shell of that side.
Indeed, were it not for a number of important saves by Jason Steele, no one would have begrudged Crystal Palace the three points which the Boro keeper ultimately denied them.
Boro just couldn’t get out of second gear throughout and at times looked as if they were running on empty – no doubt due to the fact a number of players are on the injury list which increased by one before the game, Barry Robson ruled out with a fractured finger.
Two more would join him in the treatment room as Faris Haroun and Marvin Emnes hobbled off with hamstring injuries.
Robson might make it back for Wednesday’s cup replay against the Black Cats but the other two are certainly out.
It means more tired bodies and minds will have to roll up their sleeves again and somehow find the energy to compete, which Mowbray concedes is beginning to take its toll.
He said: “I think there was a little bit of the mind being willing but the players’ bodies were not responding. The players were in the right frame of mind – especially after the disappointment of only taking a point at Leicester earlier this week.
“We talked about getting a home victory to build on the back of that point and it would have kept us pushing on nicely.
“The way the game panned out today,, I would have been content with the point as we got towards the end as Palace were quite potent on the break and we found it difficult to get going.
“When you’re mentally fatigued after a hard week, the last thing you need is someone like Wilfried Zaha running at you and causing mayhem. I’m sure they’ve had lots of games like this as well.
“On days like today, it is a hard enough job to physically keep going in professional sport and keep trying to find performances.”
On Haroun and Emnes, Mowbray admitted it was unlikely the duo would be able to face Sunderland.
He added: “They both have hamstring injuries.
“Hopefully they won’t be too severe. I have to doubt if they would be fit for Wednesday’s game.
“Hamstrings are usually a more serious injury.
“You can sometimes gamble with them but that first sprint on a cold night could tear it up and put you out for six or eight weeks. But we’ll judge it over the next few days.”
It could have been different had Boro not passed up a gilt-edged chance early on. Palace keeper Julian Speroni made a right old hash of punching out Tony McMahon’s corner but Lukas Jutkiewicz failed to head the rebound with any conviction which allowed Anthony Gardner to put in a goal-saving block.
Then Palace began to impose themselves with Wilfried Zaha in the role of tormentor-in-chief. Had Chris Martin had his shooting boots on, Boro could well have been two goals down by half-time.
Those hoping for Boro to gee themselves up for the second half were to be disappointed as Palace – and Zaha especially – picked up where they left off.
Zaha went close when he glided past a number of tacklers only for Steele to pull off a superb save. The home stopper saved his side’s bacon twice more with a brace of fantastic blocks to deny Martin and Jermaine Easter.
Amazingly, Boro could have won it at the death when Jutkiewicz’s ferocious half-volley was superbly saved by Speroni. Had it gone in though, it would have papered over the cracks – something which Mowbray has to do given the ever-growing injury list.
MIDDLESBROUGH: Steele, McMahon (Smallwood 84), Bates, Hines, Hoyte, Haroun (Martin 8), Thomson, Rhys Williams, Bennett, Emnes (Main 50), Jutkiewicz. Subs (not used): Ripley, McManus. Booked: McMahon.
CRYSTAL PALACE: Speroni, Clyne, Gardner, McCarthy, Parr, Zaha, Jedinak, Dikgacoi, Ambrose (Scannell 81), Martin, Easter. Subs (not used): Price, Garvan, Murray, McShane. Booked: Dikgacoi.
Referee: Mark Heywood (Cheshire) Attendance: 15,725