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Late concessions continue to plague misfiring Middlesbrough
Full-time: Middlesbrough 0 Brighton 1
THE concession of one late goal can be considered unfortunate. Do it twice, and you're starting to look sloppy. Let in three in the space of ten days, however, and you're harbouring a deep-rooted issue that is likely to have a seriously detrimental impact on a club's ambitions for the rest of the campaign.
Not content with shipping stoppage-time strikes at Derby and Birmingham, Middlesbrough were again undone in the closing stages as Brighton became the latest team to inflict more misery on the troubled Teessiders.
Matthew Upson's close-range header might not have come in the final minute – the clock had just ticked beyond the 86th-minute mark when he powered into the box to convert Craig Conway's corner – but for the third game in a row, there was insufficient time for Boro to respond to their late setback.
It is an Achilles heel that pre-dates the arrival of Aitor Karanka, with Tony Mowbray also having been unable to address his side's calamitous record in the final five minutes of matches.
Clearly, it reflects a lack of confidence, with a sense of fatalism evident among players and spectators alike whenever a close game approaches its denouement.
But there are other factors at play as well, most notably an absence of leadership among a group that boasts its fair share of experience and a collective failure of concentration when the stakes are at their highest.
“I can't believe the situation,” said Karanka, who has now picked up just four points from his five matches since taking over at the Riverside. “You can say sorry one or two times, but in the five games, it is the same mistakes. It is not possible to continue in this way.
“We have played better than this in my first five games. My hope now is that the players will concentrate better, right up until the last second. The biggest worry for me is my players' concentration levels. If we keep making these mistakes, we will be in a very difficult position.”
Middlesbrough have conceded a goal in the final ten minutes of eight of their matches this season, a failing that has cost them eight points and seen them crash out of the Capital One Cup at the hands of League Two Accrington Stanley.
Those eight points could yet prove crucial given that Boro now find themselves just three points above the relegation zone, and while the play-offs were still being discussed as a realistic target when Karanka was appointed at the start of last month, the Spaniard's primary task in the second half of the season will be to keep his side out of League One.
It should be eminently achievable, although with every game that passes, it becomes increasingly evident that major surgery could be required in next month's transfer window.
The current squad has struggled for quite a while now – a record of seven Championship victories in the entire calendar year is simply unacceptable – and tinkering around the edges is unlikely to bring about the sort of radical improvement that is needed.
Having embarked on a markedly different course when he appointed Karanka, will Steve Gibson continue the process of evolution by funding a major rebuild next month?
The chairman will no doubt point to the wage bill and argue that the current squad should not be as uncompetitive as it appears. It is a valid point, but also a somewhat irrelevant one. Without changes of personnel, it is hard to see how results on the pitch will alter.
“The club and me have been talking about what could happen in January,” said Karanka. “But we will have to wait and see.
“The message I will be giving my team is to keep working. The first thing is to do the things that we need to on the training ground, and then we can translate that into the games.”
Clearly, Boro's defending from set pieces needs to improve, and on Saturday, they were troubled whenever Conway delivered the ball into the middle from either a corner or free-kick.
Brighton should have opened the scoring in the tenth minute when Ashley Barnes found himself completely unmarked from a corner, but the striker planted a header against the base of the post from ten yards.
Boro were second best for the majority of the first half, but gradually clawed themselves back into the game and just about shaded things in terms of possession and threat in the second period.
There was precious little that was pretty about either side's play, but things might well have been different had Lukas Jutkiewicz not passed up the two best chances of the game.
Recalled for the first time since mid-September in place of the injured Kei Kamara, Jutkiewicz looked rusty throughout and when Mustapha Carayol crossed two minutes before the interval, he somehow managed to miss his header completely, with the ball looping towards goalkeeper Peter Brezovan off his shoulder.
Midway through the second half, he out-jumped Adam El-Abd to reach Albert Adomah's centre, but was unable to direct his header below the crossbar.
“Lukas did some very good work and needs to take confidence,” claimed Karanka. “He is fit now and will be important for us because Kei is not going to be with us for a while.”
With Curtis Main the only other striker on Middlesbrough's books, Jutkiewicz will be a key figure during the festive programme.
Boro head to Millwall this weekend before entertaining Burnley and Reading between Christmas and New Year. Clearly, there is a need for their defenders to be more resolute, but as the last few months have proved, it doesn't have to be Christmas for Boro to be handing out gifts.
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