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Fulham 4-3 Middlesbrough Cham 45 1415 Northern Echo

last updated Tuesday 28th April 2015, 12:59 PM

Northern Echo
Paul Fraser at Northern Echo

Fulham (1) 4-3 (0) Middlesbrough

Beyond the disappointment which undoubtedly greeted the final whistle at Craven Cottage there was an overwhelming and somewhat surprising vibe of positivity.

While there might still be an outside chance - albeit extremely slender - of automatic promotion, the majority of Boro fans in West London are not prepared to give up on their Premier League dream just yet.

Six years on from that last, ill-fated top-flight campaign, a return could still be on the cards.

Defeat to Fulham, allowing Watford to clinch an automatic promotion spot, might have put the buffers on Boro's chances of finishing in the top two, but this season is far from over - and the supporters know it.

As Middlesbrough's players trudged off the pitch at the Cottage, many with their heads bowed, they were greeted to a rendition of 'Que Sera Sera' from the 4,000-strong travelling supporters who are now thinking of a trip to Wembley.

Their optimism rubbed off on skipper Grant Leadbitter too. After emerging from a deflated dressing room, Leadbitter was desperate to get his message across before a question had even been thrown his way. "Let's have no negativity, we all have to be positive,'' he said.

Now, you sense within the Boro camp, is not the time to be glum ahead of one final league game at a sell-out Riverside against Brighton this Saturday. That sort of approach and attitude has mirrored Karanka's thinking for the majority of the season.

Not, though, on Saturday. While everyone was trying to be positive, Karanka was a little more guarded. He was furious at the way his side's weak first half performance paved the way for a defeat to a Fulham side with nothing to play for.

When he was asked if he felt his team would be ready for the challenge of the play-offs if that is what falls his way, he said: "I don't know today. After the Norwich game I was completely convinced we were ready but now I have doubts again.

"It is not the first time. We have had doubts after Bournemouth and Watford games but then we showed what we were about against Norwich and Wolves. Now I have doubts again. I have to think again and make sure I/we learn from this game again."

Many felt Karanka made a huge blunder of his own in stoppage-time. Middlesbrough were in the ascendancy after clawing themselves back from two goals down to 3-3 so he ordered goalkeeper Dimi Konstantopoulos up for a late corner in the hope it would lead to a dramatic winner.

The attack broke down, Fulham charged down the other end and by the time Konstantopoulos had raced back to his penalty area, Ross McCormack simply rounded him before slotting in his hat-trick goal to leave Middlesbrough pointless.

A draw would have lifted Boro above Bournemouth in to second ahead of the Cherries' game in hand against Bolton tonight. If Bolton did win, the decision will be costly.

Karanka said: "I thought we had to win the game. I didn't think one point was enough so for that reason I said to Dimi to go for the corner. They scored. They spent £11m on McCormack and he scored three goals, so we knew he had that. But we wanted the play-offs at the start of the season and we got those with two games ago. We are happy with that."

He described how his players fought together and supported one another throughout the second half to get back in to a strong position despite failing to deal with McCormack, a former Boro target under Tony Mowbray, throughout the afternoon.

Konstantopoulos had already made a stunning low save to his left to deny Hugo Rodallega in the first half before former Sunderland defender Michael Turner nodded Fulham ahead seconds before half-time.

That left Middlesbrough, who did go close in the opening few minutes when Leadbitter's brilliant free-kick dipped just over the bar, with an uphill struggle and that became even bigger when McCormack slotted in his first penalty nine minutes after the break when he had been clumsily shoved to the floor by Daniel Ayala.

Karanka introduced three substitutes and Adam Reach, one of the trio, pulled a goal back less than two minutes later when goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli could only help his effort in to the top corner in the 63rd minute.

But George Friend's attempt to prevent Rodallega from scoring resulted in another foul in the area and a red card. McCormack found the opposite corner and there was a two-goal advantage again just a few minutes later.

Middlesbrough, though, kept going and when Ayala headed in Albert Adomah's cross with 17 minutes remaining hope had been revived and when Kike glanced in a brilliant 88th minute header from Lee Tomlin's centre there was a sense that an incredible turnaround was on the cards.

Leadbitter went close with a couple of distance drives and Bettinelli made a fantastic flying save to stop Ayala from grabbing a second, but the pressure paved the way for the match-winning counter attack when McCormack tapped in to an empty net with almost the last kick of the game.

Karanka said: "We had it in our hands to win the game and we did everything during the week to make sure we played the same we did against Norwich last week. I don't know what happened in the first half.

"It was like we were playing for nothing and then we conceded in the last minute before half-time. You can understand if players are tired, but then in the second half we were much better than them with ten men.

"We can't be tired so why didn't we play the first half the way we know. But it is embarrassing. I can't understand."

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