By Tony Leighton
Middlesbrough's npower Championship promotion drive has dropped out of gear with a run of three defeats in four games, the most disappointing of them being Friday night's 3-2 reversal at Birmingham City after twice taking the lead against lowly opposition.
Grant Leadbitter then Scott McDonald put Boro in front, but Marlon King hit the first equaliser with a penalty and then, after substitute Wade Elliott had levelled the scores for a second time, King grabbed the winner to lift Blues up to 18th in the table.
Victory for Boro would have taken them level on points with leaders Cardiff City, where a 1-0 loss a fortnight ago started a disappointing sequence of results that has also included a home defeat by a Bristol City side stuck in the relegation zone.
Manager Tony Mowbray remained as philosophical as ever about his team's situation, but he nevertheless bemoaned some poor defending plus the unavailability of key players through injury after seeing Boro go down at St Andrew's.
"We gifted them goals and that's not something we've done often this season," complained Mowbray, whose former England central defender Jonathan Woodgate and regular left-back George Friend were both missing because of injury.
"Woodgate's a top quality defender who doesn't make too many mistakes or bad decisions," added the Boro boss. "When he plays we don't give soft goals away, so when he's not available it's a blow to us.
"George Friend has probably been our most consistent defender this season, he's been magnificent for us. Quality wins you football matches at both ends of the pitch, people keeping the ball out of the net as well as people putting the ball in the net."
Despite his disappointment at losing a game in which they had been on top until the final 20 minutes, Mowbray's optimism and ambition were undiminished as he looked ahead to guiding his side back on to the road to the Premier League.
"We've dug pretty deep in the squad and we're doing okay," he said. "We went to Cardiff and probably dominated the game more than we did tonight and yet we lost there as well. You've just got to keep doing what you believe is right.
"If you play as well as we did in spells tonight then you'll win matches, so we'll keep going and we'll be fine. We're accumulating points, we're sitting third in the table and if we had won tonight we'd have been level on points at the top.
"So we're within touching distance and we're doing alright. We've given ourselves a chance and now we'll see if we can get enough points to get us out of this league.
We just have to take tonight's defeat on the chin - and it's a big chin I've got!"
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