The final international break of the season is over. 8 weeks and 8 games are left for Boro to save themselves, starting on Saturday at Bolton Wanderers. With the need to increase the goal output imperative, and Tuncay doubtful after two games against European champions Spain, goal-shy Brazilian lunk Afonso Alves is likely to be given another opportunity. Adam Johnson may get also get a chance after an impressive showing as England's under 21 team were taught a lesson by their French counterparts.
The formbook does not give any reason for optimism for the game at the Reebok. Its not just that Boro haven't won an away game in the league since November 9th. They haven't taken an away point since drawing 1-1 at Everton on a week later, and haven't scored on the road since Tuncay's strike at Hull on December 6th. Boro have notched eight points and eight goals "on our travels" this season. Its an appalling record.
With the gap to seventeenth place and survival up to four points, its getting harder to see which teams could crumble and save Boro. With eleventh placed Tottenham now safe on 38 points, the relegated three can only plausibly come from nine clubs. Defeat to Bolton on Saturday would almost certainly ensure survival for Gary Megson's side.
Hull's dismal form means they must still be considered candidates. However, they start from a position of relative strength. With Portsmouth on Humberside this weekend before a trip to the Riverside, they do have an opportunity to avert danger soon. Two wins from eight will be enough for Phil Brown's team but if they don't get them soon they could be in trouble.
The same goes for Sunderland, who still have to face Hull, West Brom, Bolton and Portsmouth. Their safety is in their hands. As with Hull, it would take a total collapse over the next two months for relegation to occur.
Despite being level on points with Sunderland, Stoke and Portsmouth seem more realistic candidates for the drop. Stoke's dismal away form puts immense pressure to keep on picking up points at the Britannia. Even trips to the KC Stadium and the Hawthorns are unlikely to be rich pickings for a side who only have four draws to show for fifteen away games all season. Back to back home games against Blackburn and Newcastle will go a long way to sealing their fate.
Having looked doomed under Tony Adams, Portsmouth are starting to suggest they can scrape their way to safety. They had much the better of a poor game at the Riverside and the took an unexpected win over Everton. Their home form seems to be recovering, and with West Brom, Bolton and Sunderland still to go to Fratton Park, there's a good chance it will be enough to stay up. Like the other sides mentioned so far, Pompey not only have a handy points advantage over Boro but also a less imposing run-in.
Assuming West Brom are beyond hope (and if they're not there yet it surely won't be much longer), that means it likely to come down to two from three - Blackburn, Newcastle and Boro. Sam Allardyce has stabilised Rovers and kept them in touch with safety since taking over mid-season. They've still struggled for wins, particularly at home, with just three wins at Ewood Park all season. With away games at Liverpool, Stoke, Manchester City and Chelsea to come, that has to change. The main consolation for Rovers is that, should it come down to the last day of the season, they're at home to West Brom.
Newcastle have listed dangerously in recent weeks and the appointment of Alan Shearer is either a last, desperate gamble or the act of a Match of the Day viewer at the end of his tether. There will be no disputing that the Tyne-Tees derby matters this year, with Boro's trip to St James's on May 3rd already looking crucial. With four tough away games (Stoke, Spurs, Liverpool and Villa) and Chelsea on Saturday, it will be all about about beating Portsmouth, Boro and Fulham at home for the latest Geordie messiah.
All of the above leaves Boro with no margin for error. The Riverside double header against Hull and Fulham must produce four, maybe even six, points to keep Boro in touch as the last five games look tricky. Of those fixtures, the first is at the Emirates and the two at the Riverside are against Manchester United and Aston Villa. That puts huge importance on taking points at Newcastle and then at West Ham on the last day of the season. There cannot be confidence but there is at least still some hope. Rapidly dwindling, blind hope but hope nonetheless.
Bolton - 42 pts
Portsmouth - 42 pts
Stoke - 40 pts
Hull - 40 pts
Sunderland - 39 pts
Blackburn - 39 pts
Newcastle - 36 pts
Boro - 34 pts
West Brom - 28 pts