UNBEATABLE at home. Unsteady away.
That is the wildly conflicting nature of Middlesbrough’s npower Championship campaign.
Barely 72 hours after an exciting 4-2 win over bogey club Blackpool – their 10th Riverside victory of the campaign – Boro slumped to a 3-1 defeat at Derby County.
It was a major blow to their automatic promotion hopes.
Young midfield duo Michael Jacobs and Jeff Hendrick did the damage with first-half goals before Conor Sammon scored midway through the second half to seal the three points.
Boro arrived at Pride Park having won four of their last five league games but Tony Mowbray’s team suffered an off-day.
Middlesbrough created very little and the margin of victory for Derby might have been greater, with a Ben Davies free-kick striking the crossbar and Jason Steele saving when one-on-one with Sammon.
The visitors did pull a goal back in injury time through Lukas Jutkiewicz but it was too little, too late.
It was Boro’s seventh defeat on the road and their fourth out of their last five awaydays – a statistic which must improve significantly if they are to gain an automatic promotion spot.
Boro at least have a seven-point cushion to the final play-off spot but they have lost third place – to Crystal Palace – and lost ground on Hull City in second.
Mowbray was without a number of key players at Pride Park yesterday but refused to use that as an excuse.
“It’s disappointing to lose any game but you have to give Derby credit,” Mogga said.
“They are a team full of energy and some very good players
“We never got to the races at any stage of the game.
“We’ve done OK so far this season but for whatever reason, we didn’t get going at all here.
“But we will get stronger as the season goes on and players are back from injury.
“There was probably almost a team missing, but I don’t want to use that as an excuse.
“Derby played well today and good luck to them.”
Boro made three changes as Lukas Jutkiewicz, Adam Reach and Stuart Parnaby came in for Ishmael Miller, Marvin Emnes and Justin Hoyte.
Jacobs had a goalbound effort blocked by Jonathan Woodgate and saw a 20-yard shot narrowly miss before getting on the scoresheet in the 19th minute.
Davies picked out Jacobs just inside the box and the 21-year-old confidently stroked a right-foot shot into the bottom corner of the net.
Hendrick flashed a shot inches wide shortly afterwards before the 20-year-old found the target after 42 minutes, sending a screamer of a shot into the top right-hand corner of the net from the edge of the area.
It was almost 3-0 on the stroke of half-time when Davies’ free-kick thundered off the bar and ricocheted to safety.
Steele denied Sammon at point-blank range at the start of the second half and then thwarted the Derby striker when he was clear through one on one.
However, a third goal finally arrived after 65 minutes.
Another of the Rams’ impressive youngsters, Will Hughes, showed good feet in the penalty area before Jacobs’ shot was saved by Steele and Sammon was on hand to tap home the loose ball.
Home keeper Adam Legzdins was called into a rare piece of action with 15 minutes remaining, pushing away sub Miller’s stinging shot.
The big striker did make a difference when he came on and it was he who set up Jutkiewicz for a tap in in the second minute of added time with a low delivery from the left wing.
Jutkiewicz successfully anticipated the cross and used his strength to get in front of his marker and hammer the ball into the net.
It was scant consolation for Boro who will welcome a third-round FA Cup tie against Hastings as a chance to get some of the club’s wounded troops ready for the next Championship battle, at home to Watford on January 12.