MIDDLESBROUGH boss Tony Mowbray is praying for one final twist to the Championship season.
A first-minute Southampton goal was not the start he wanted on Saturday evening, but by the final whistle Boro’s play-off hopes were surprisingly still alive.
Goals by Nicky Bailey and a sizzling free-kick from Meroaune Zemmama turned the game on its head, giving the Teessiders a chance of gatecrashing the play-offs.
Mowbray’s men need to win at Watford, and hope that Cardiff lose at Crystal Palace to claim a sixth-place finish.
“That (win) keeps it alive for us, it keeps it bubbling,” said Mowbray.
“We know now we have to go to Watford and win. Yes, we would still need someone else to do us a favour – Cardiff have a tough game at Crystal Palace – but we are still in there and fighting.
“And, to be fair, the lads deserve it after that performance. To come from a goal down so early showed great character.
“But they knew they had to. They knew that only three points would do and they played in a very positive manner.
“I just hope that the energy they showed and the atmosphere in the stadium gives us the little bit extra we need when we go into next week’s game.”
Knowing a win would have taken them up to the Premier League, Southampton made the perfect start, scoring after 46 seconds through Billy Sharp.
Adam Lallana cushioned a header into the path of Rickie Lambert. His first touch was heavy but the second deadly, laying the ball into the path of Sharp who could not miss.
Middlesbrough, on an awful run of one win in 10, reacted to that early setback well.
Faris Haroun played a low cross in from the right which would have led to a tap-in but for the reactions of Danny Fox who cleared back to Haroun. He found Barry Robson at the edge of the area but he could only fire over.
Robson went close again after 14 minutes. He received the ball from Nicky Bailey and brought it under control with a wonderful first touch, but lashed just over.
Southampton went close again 10 minutes before half-time. Zemmama fouled Richard Chaplow just outside the box and from the resulting free-kick, Fox whipped his effort just wide, with Jason Steele beaten.
But Middlesbrough gave their play-off hopes a boost in first-half injury-time. A Robson cross was headed out into the path of Bailey, who let fly with a left-foot volley that found Kelvin Davis’ bottom left corner via a Chaplow deflection.
Despite the equaliser at the end of the first half, only Middlesbrough’s seventh goal in 11 games, it was Southampton who came flying out for the second half, and Lambert went close with a ferocious free-kick that went just over.
Sharp also tried his luck minutes later. Lambert could not control when the ball fell to him and Sharp was on hand but sliced over.
Controversy reigned moments later when the already booked Seb Hines fouled Lallana when he was ready to let fly at the edge of the area, but the referee elected not to book the Middlesbrough defender again. Lambert’s resulting free-kick was off target.
Southampton’s 31-goal top scorer continued to threaten. This time he found enough space in the box to attempt an audacious overhead kick, but could only direct the effort wide.
It took more than 25 minutes for Middlesbrough’s first attempt of the half, and Davis had to be alert to tip wide a Tony McMahon free-kick.
After being on the back foot for so long, it was Middlesbrough who went ahead 13 minutes from time, with a goal worthy of winning any game.
Jose Fonte was penalised for holding back Lukas Jutkiewicz and from the resulting free-kick, Zemmama curled a beautiful free-kick into the top left corner.
Middlesbrough: Steele, Hoyte (Bennett 40), McManus, Hines, McMahon, Zemmama, Haroun, Bailey, Robson (Rhys Williams 59), Jutkiewicz, McDonald (Main 59). Subs Not Used: Hammill, Ogbeche. Booked: Zemmama, Bailey, Hines. Goals: Bailey 45, Zemmama 77.
Southampton: Davis, Butterfield (Schneiderlin 84), Fonte, Hooiveld, Fox, Chaplow (Do Prado 61), Hammond, Cork, Lallana, Lambert, Sharp. Subs Not Used: Bialkowski, Harding, Martin. Booked: Fonte. Goals: Sharp 1.
Att: 19,002 Ref: Tony Bates (Staffordshire).