Full-time: Brighton and Hove Albion 0 Middlesbrough 2
DURING Middlesbrough’s goal drought, where they could not buy a goal, there was a definite case of blind faith emanating from the club.
“It will change”, we were told. “The chances will come. We’re doing everything right.”
Of course, on the pitch, there was little to suggest that. Boro set a club record of seven whole games without scoring a goal, and at times, it felt that the run would go on forever.
But the tide did turn. And Boro were right. It did change. They may not be free-scoring, but once Danny Graham ended the goal drought with a 2-0 victory against Ipswich three weeks ago, they have failed to score in only one game.
Their drought made a finish in the play-off places highly unlikely - they sit in 13th place in the Championship, 11 points off the top six with seven games to play - but a strong finish to the season could ensure a happy summer for Aitor Karanka’s side.
After Boro won 2-0 at Brighton on Saturday, where Albert Adomah then Graham scored the goals, skipper Grant Leadbitter was impressed with the clinicality on display in a game where Brighton were profligate, missing a penalty when 1-0 down.
“It was a good win. We played very well and dominated the majority of the football game,” said Leadbitter, who slotted straight back into the team having missed the 2-2 draw at Huddersfield through suspension. “We took our chances which we haven’t done recently. When you take your chances in football you’ve got a right chance.
“Brighton missed a penalty, which we were a bit fortunate with, but they had chances that they didn’t take. Maybe it’s the pressure of getting into the play-offs, I don’t know.
“We passed the ball well. In recent away games we haven’t passed the ball, we’ve been concentrating on keeping clean sheets, and when you do that you don’t tend to pass the ball.
“But we got the balance right, it worked for us and I think we dominated, we passed the ball well and took our chances.”
Victory continued Boro’s unbeaten record at Brighton’s Amex Stadium, which places the Seagulls’ own play-off aspirations in jeopardy.
And Leadbitter said: “Brighton are a patient team, and they are one of the best passing teams in the league. It was hard at times because they keep the ball really well.
“The fans need to get behind their team, they need to be patient.
“Sometimes you go through tricky spells, that’s Brighton’s third loss on the bounce but I’m sure they’ll bounce back because they’ve got good characters in the dressing room. I’m sure they’ll keep fighting for the play-offs.”
The first chance of the game fell to Brighton after four minutes when Will Buckley crossed for David Lopez, but the Spaniard’s low shot was saved superbly by Dimi Konstantopoulos, who fingertipped the ball wide for a corner.
Luke Williams, in his first start since his recall from Hartlepool United, cut inside and shot just wide of the Albion post with nine minutes on the clock, before Lee Tomlin saw his powerful effort kept out by Brighton goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak.
Boro looked strong on the counter-attack, and Leadbitter’s shot was inches wide on the half-hour, before Brighton had two chances of their own.
Firstly, Leo Ulloa, on his return to the side after illness, was involved in a goalmouth scramble cleared manfully by Boro, while Ben Gibson made a real meal of an overhead kick clearance, which was pounced on by Lopez only for the offside flag to be raised.
Such was Brighton’s need to win this fixture in order to keep their play-off dreams alive, the Seagulls were booed off at half-time. If they were angry at 45 minutes, their fury at full-time was immeasurable.
Grant Leadbitter challenges Brighton's Bruno
For in the second half, Albion went on the attack, but could find no way through Middlesbrough’s formidable defence. Jesse Lingard curled wide after a smart backheel by substitute Jake Forster Caskey, while Forster-Caskey saw a powerful shot easily gathered by Konstantopoulos moments later.
Keith Andrews got on the end of Ulloa’s cross but was kept at bay by Gibson, and Boro drew first blood as a result of the counter-attack.
George Friend aimed a hopeful ball up to Graham, who held off his marker to fire in across the face of goal for Adomah to tap in from close range.
It could have been two moments later when goalscorer turned supplier, pitching the perfect cross for Graham to head agonisingly wide.
Albion were given a route back into the game when Friend tripped substitute Solly March in the area, but Ulloa, looking jaded, stepped up and fired the spot-kick high over the crossbar.
Boro punished their hosts when Graham slotted home after Leadbitter pounced on a miscontrol by Andrews at the back.
There was time for Lingard to force a smart stop out of Konstantopoulos, but by then, the game was won for Boro and the 924 fans from Teesside were sent home happy.
The preamble to Saturday’s game focused mainly on Oscar Garcia and Aitor Karanka, countrymen who had brought a new approach to their respective new clubs. In Sussex, it is a sharp contrast to the attacking, fluid football employed by former coach Gus Poyet, but for Boro, there is belief that Karanka could be a success on Teesside after replacing Tony Mowbray.
“The manager had an effect from day one,” said Leadbitter. “He brought a winning mentality to the club, he brought that from Real Madrid and instilled it into the players. We all want to win. We learn every day in training, I want to learn how to get out of this league.
“There’s seven games to go. It’s going to be hard because there’s a lot of teams in front of us. When there’s only a couple in front you never know but when there’s a lot, it’s going to be hard.
“We’re the type of club that keeps on fighting and we try to win every game from now until the end of the season.”