Derby County 0
Middlesbrough 1 Patrick Bamford 64
The winless run for the Rams now stretches to five games with this deflating defeat to well organised promotion rivals Middlesbrough; a defeat made all the more frustrating by identity of the goalscorer.
Particularly worrying to see was the complete lack of threat we posed in this game with (arguably) one clear cut chance created all night.
The continued absence of Chris Martin and Darren Bent is something we are not coping with at all and the Rams are suddenly 5pts away from the automatic promotion spots with only 8 games to go.
That one chance fell to substitute Jesse Lingard late on and with little time to steady himself he flashed his shot wide.
Indeed we did not force goalkeeper Dimi Konstantopoulos into one meaningful save all game and as the night wore on we may have huffed and puffed but it never looked likely that we would score.
There were two changes for Derby from the team that took a battling point away from Carrow Road on Saturday. Cyrus Christie and Craig Bryson were selected replacing Ryan Shotton and Jeff Hendrick.
There was no return to the match day squad for George Thorne though despite Paul Simpson’s pre match interview suggesting that the Rams would give the influential midfielder every chance to be involved, including the alarming comments about “taking a risk” on him if we had to .
This left me conflicted as to whether I was disappointed he was still missing or pleased we weren’t taking a gamble on him.
His absence meant a home debut for Jamie Hanson who again acquitted himself very well, combative in the tackle and neat and organised in his passing.
He is looking an incredibly mature player for his age and a hell of a prospect for us, though it is a big ask to be throwing him into the business end of a promotion battle against two of our rivals.
Injuries to the three players we would be selecting in front of Hanson though have left the Rams with few other options.
The game started steadily, the Rams pushing Boro back but without threatening in front of yet another 30,000 + crowd.
I was getting a little déjà vu from that awful refereeing performance in the Birmingham game as Andy D’Urso made a few idiosyncratic decisions early on but that was forgotten as a superb whipped cross from Cyrus Christie so nearly found Jamie Ward sliding in at the far post.
This was almost immediately followed by a superb double save from Lee Grant as Boro showed what they were capable of.
I found myself thinking we might have a bit of luck on our side when, later in the half, Granty shanked a clearance straight to Jelle Vossen who lobbed the ball back toward the empty net only for it to bounce off the post back into the grateful Grant’s grasp.
Johnny Russell again had the thankless task of leading the line as the central striker but despite his endless work and application he had little to work with as time and time again he was fighting for balls better suited to Andy Carroll than a player of his stature.
There were flashes of creativity and intent from us in the first half, a lovely pass from Jamie Ward nearly putting Tom Ince in after half an hour and a lovely move involving Richard Keogh, Tom Ince and Cyrus Christie almost unlocking the defence.
As the first half ended I optimistically thought that we could nick this with a little bit of magic from either Will Hughes or Tom Ince but we never seemed to get started in a second half that started in a haphazard way with injuries to Vossen and Grant Leadbitter interrupting play.
Johnny Russell snatched at a half chance just before the hour, pulling his shot wide of goal and shortly afterwards the sense that Boro had been holding us off waiting for their chance became all too apparent.
The Rams gifted possession to Lee Tomlin who played in Patrick Bamford superbly, and with a crushing sense of inevitability the on loan Chelsea striker evaded Lee Grant and slid the ball into the net.
We never looked like rescuing the game when we fell behind. Jeff Hendrick, Jesse Lingard and Kwame Thomas were thrown on, Raul Albentosa played increasingly as an emergency striker but Middlesbrough kept us at bay with ease, I’m afraid to say to take a vital three points and hold on to 2nd place.
Realistically we have moved from one of the favourites for automatic promotion to outsiders with that 5 point gap opening up.
It would be foolish to say that we have seen the last of the myriad twists and turns that the Championship has served up so far but our form is poor, our confidence is low and we are missing key players.
If we are to wrest back some initiative and control over our destiny this season a win at Molineaux is a must on Friday night – to do that under the current circumstances would be impressive and so very welcomed.