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Cup capitulation underlines the fragility of Boro's recovery
Full-time: Middlesbrough 0 Hull City 2
IT was billed as a potential FA Cup surprise, but in the end, the only thing shocking about this game was the standard of Middlesbrough's performance.
Faced with a Hull side reeling from the effects of a flu virus that swept through the Humberside club's training ground last week, and featuring nine changes from the team that lost at Liverpool on New Year's Day, Boro never even threatened to make life difficult for their Premier League opponents, let alone cause an upset.
Lethargic, stilted and uninspired from the off, they failed to force Steve Harper into a single meaningful save until the former Newcastle United goalkeeper tipped over Curtis Main's rising strike in stoppage time. By then, goals from Aaron McLean and Nick Proschwitz had condemned them to a first FA Cup third-round defeat for three years.
By the end of the season, that might prove to have been no bad thing if the uncluttered schedule enables Aitor Karanka's side to haul themselves into a play-off position, with the impending arrival of Chelsea youngster Kenneth Omeruo offering cause for optimism.
But that doesn't mean Saturday's desultory display should be ignored given that it was an unwelcome throwback to some of the below-par performances that peppered the early stages of the season.
Forget the festive renaissance that featured home wins over Burnley and Reading, this was more akin to the listless displays at QPR and Brighton that cost Tony Mowbray so dear.
So while there has undoubtedly been progress under Karanka, the recovery remains fragile and the potential for future lapses is alarmingly apparent.
“We can do much better than that,” admitted the Boro boss. “They were much better than us and that was disappointing. We seemed to have forgotten who we are, and what we need to do to win games.
“When you play against a team from a higher league, you have to have more intensity in your play. If you are lower than the team you are playing, then the intensity has to be higher. But we didn't have that.
“Why? I don't know. It was our fifth game in two weeks, so maybe some of the players were tired. But everyone seemed to be working well for me and I will keep some of the thoughts about my team to myself.”
Those thoughts are unlikely to be kind ones, and while Boro's squad might be extremely strong in terms of numbers – Karanka has admitted he has too many potential first-team players at his disposal – Saturday's display suggests that the Teessiders' talent pool is not particularly deep.
Six players came into the side that had drawn at Bolton three days earlier, and while two of the changes were enforced because of the terms of Shay Given and Daniel Ayala's loan deals, it is hard to argue that any of the replacements met the required standard.
Luke Williams was especially disappointing as he made his first start of the season, and Karanka's decision to replace the 20-year-old winger at the interval spoke volumes. While the likes of Williams and Curtis Main might provide potential, they are surely too callow to spearhead a promotion push, an accusation that could also be levelled at the likes of Ben Gibson and Richie Smallwood.
Signing promising youngsters from the likes of Chelsea is all well and good, but might Boro not benefit from a bit of gnarled Championship experience as they look to kick on in the second half of the campaign?
“I said in the first or second game when Main was man of the match, that he still needs to work much harder for the team,” said Karanka. “Luke is a young player, and he needs to improve. I am happy with him though because he is a talented player and that was his first appearance for me. I think he will go on to play a lot of times.”
That is as maybe, but he rarely looked like fashioning an opening during his 45-minute outing at the weekend. In fairness, he was far from the only player failing to make an impact, and while the presence of Grant Leadbitter and Dean Whitehead as two screening midfielders was clearly an attempt to protect the back four, the fact that both players rarely strayed from their own half had a seriously detrimental effect on Boro's attacking.
With two midfielders effectively taken out of the equation in an attacking sense, there was a huge reliance on Williams and Emmanuel Ledesma in the wide positions and Marvin Emnes in the hole behind Main to spark a breakthrough.
It never arrived, with Emnes in particular frustrating the home fans as he repeatedly conceded possession under limited pressure.
Giving the ball away was a recurring problem throughout the first half, and some sloppiness from Ledesma eventually culminated in Hull's tenth-minute opener. David Meyler's shot was blocked by George Friend, but the ball broke kindly for McLean to stab home ahead of a somewhat flat-footed Dimi Konstantopoulos.
Whitehead wasted Boro's chance shortly before the hour mark, shooting wide from the edge of the area after Maynor Figueroa had failed to clear Emnes' cross, and Hull doubled their lead three minutes later.
Paul McShane fed George Boyd in the area, and after the former Boro transfer target cut the ball back, Proschwitz rifled a crisp first-time strike into the roof of the net.
“We have come a long way since the gaffer came in and we shouldn't forget that,” said Konstantopoulos. “We're picking up points now and getting good results. We're in a decent position, but we have to look to push on and do more.”