THE gap separating Middlesbrough and the Championship’s bottom three stands at only four points, but on-loan defender Daniel Ayala insists the squad must continue to look up rather than over their shoulders.
Boro missed out on a chance to put more daylight between themselves and the relegation zone after twice throwing away a lead at Birmingham City on Saturday.
The Teessiders looked like they were heading for a crucial away win at St Andrew’s, but for the second game running Aitor Karanka’s side switched off and allowed their opponents to grab a late goal.
On Saturday, it was the difference between winning and drawing and with several teams around them picking up points from the last two Championship programmes, Boro’s position in the table is growing increasingly concerning.
On top of that, the Teessiders have some tricky fixtures over the festive period with Brighton, Millwall, league leaders Burnley and Reading all on the agenda and defender Ayala admits his side must start picking up wins – and soon.
“We have to start getting three points as soon as possible,” said Ayala, who scored his third goal since joining on a three-month loan deal on Saturday.
“You cannot look back, though. We have to look forward. We have another game coming up against Brighton and we’ll have to get the three points there.”
Boro’s form in the first half of the season has given Karanka’s men a mountain to climb in the second with their chances of making a push for the play-offs looking less and less likely as the weeks go by.
While Ayala admits reaching the play-offs will be difficult this season, the Spanish centre back insists there is still hope if Middlesbrough can put a run of form together over the coming months.
He said: “It is difficult to get to the play-offs but the league is so crazy that if you win three or four weeks in a row then you have confidence and you never know what could happen.
“It’s only three weeks since the new manager came in but I know we have really enjoyed training and I think you can see the changes on the pitch. I think we’ll start winning games soon.”
Saturday’s visit of Brighton will be Karanka’s fifth game in charge of the Teessiders and Ayala believes there have been signs of improvement since his fellow Spaniard was appointed.
The 23-year-old returned to the starting-line-up at St Andrew’s and produced a performance that impressed his manager.
Ayala lost his place in the side following a mistake that led to Jason Steele’s red card at Leeds United, but now he hopes to be given more opportunities to impress.
“When you have a new manager you just want to do well and I really want to do well,” the on-loan Norwich defender said. “I’m feeling good and I am working really hard in training and so is all the team. Everyone wants to play but it’s just 11 that can go out on the pitch. I’m just glad I did well and hopefully I can play in the next game.
“I haven’t been here too long, but maybe in the past we didn’t have that much confidence but I think in the last two or three games we have been quite unlucky. I think we will get points away from home. I don’t think it was a lack of confidence.”
After George Friend picked up a knee injury at Derby, Karanka was forced to change his back four against Birmingham with Ayala partnering Jonathan Woodgate and Ben Gibson pushing out to left-back.
The Spaniard has had to play three different combinations at the back in Boro’s last four games and Ayala believes it has hampered their chances in games.
He said: “It doesn’t help changing the back four but sometimes you have to do it when you have injuries. When you change too much it’s not a good thing but if you don’t play well you have to change it and try to get the right combination of players to stop the goals.”