And so, for Middlesbrough, the familiar pattern repeats. Just at the moment at which all hope is almost gone, they start to play again. Tuesday’s 3-0 win against Huddersfield was a reminder of how this Boro team can play, it leaves them 1 point behind the leaders Burnley with a game in hand. It all feels like a bit of a struggle and demands the question of why? How is it that Middlesbrough can play like this now, but couldn’t when they endured that run of three defeats in four games at the beginning of March?
Assuming Burnley and Brighton don’t collapse and Hull pull off something remarkable, when the post-mortem of this season is performed, the key game will be seen to be the 1-0 defeat at Rotherham. It wasn’t so much the result, disappointing as that was for Boro, but the aftermath that ensued.
Another key factor has been Ayala’s absence. His amazing partnership with Ben Gibson was something that first emerged last season. In 17 league games the two have played together this season, Boro have picked up 38 points. Boro have lost just 6% of the 17 games they’ve played together; without the pair they’ve lost 36%.
The arrival of Gaston Ramirez has helped and he offers more creativity than Tomlin or Fabbrini provided. Last season Tomlin provided 31.2 passes and 1.5 key passes per game; this season Fabbrini offered less until Ramirez came onto the scene providing 35.8 passes and 2.5 key passes per game, although Fabbrini’s pass success rate of 89.1% remains the highest in the side.
Rhodes has actually maintained his shots per 90 minutes played this season – but more significant is that less of them have been on target. Whether that is a failing on his part or in the sort of chances being created for him is hard to say but what is clear is that his shooting has been less accurate.
Clearly Rhodes is a fine player and there are signs he is returning to form; it’s just that, as ever for Boro, it’s probably too late for him to hit his usual 20 goal tally.
The night games at home have belonged to Middlesbrough (38 unbeaten) and after a month that had seen manager Aitor Karanka on the brink of supposedly abandoning Middlesbrough and missing the 2-0 defeat at Charlton, the Spaniard returned to galvanise a side that had lost three of their previous four outings.
Middlesbrough have lost to both Burnley (in the FA cup) and Hull this season; the latter to a 3-0 scoreline, Boro’s biggest defeat. However, there are waves of positivity in Teesside, with a squad capable of turning a game in a flicker and a manager with bags of potential, the 2015/16 season could be their time of glory. A defence that has only spurned 25 goals is mightily impressive, and is one of the best records in Europe, never mind the Championship. The perennial goalscoring problem seems to have been eradicated, which (in theory) could carry Boro into the Premier League. With the millions spent the players must now prove their worth, with anything below promotion seemingly viewed as a disappointment…
Burnley and Middlesbrough sit aloft in the top spots. Behind them sit a revitalised Brighton side, who have offered their fans a slither of automatic promotion hope with 18 points from a possible 24. Derby County, under the guidance of Darren Wassell, are keeping an eagle eye on the rest of flock as they look to make a late resurgence.
Who will find themselves under a canvas of cash come the end of June?
It all seems a bit too close to call this year in the Championship, but there can be no complaints. Thrilling to watch, cheaper to attend and tight in almost every tie, the second tier is a perfect understudy for Premier League football. And, for the clubs hunting for promotion, the last seven games will either fly by or last a lifetime. Who will be in the top two in May?