Boro need spark to have Sporting chance

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The Independent Football

Franck Queudrue, the Middlesbrough defender, has warned his team-mates that the season will go to waste if they do not start believing in themselves again.

Franck Queudrue, the Middlesbrough defender, has warned his team-mates that the season will go to waste if they do not start believing in themselves again.

The Boro players have sat down over the last 48 hours to thrash out their problems following Saturday's 2-0 defeat at Aston Villa, a move prompted by their captain Gareth Southgate's harsh words.

Middlesbrough have claimed just 10 points from their last 11 Premiership matches and have dropped out of the top six for the first time since October following Bolton's 1-0 win at Manchester City on Monday, so in the build-up to tomorrow's first leg Uefa Cup tie with Sporting Lisbon, Boro's confidence is arguably at its lowest ebb since the season began.

Long-term injuries to several key players have undoubtedly taken their toll throughout the campaign, but Queudrue feels there are no excuses and it is time for the players to stand up and be counted.

"We need a spark to inject some life back into the season because we're not on a good run," the left-back said. "We need to regain our focus, confidence and concentration. In all sports, all players need confidence and we need that to play our game.

"We've sat down as a group and talked about it. We've good staff for that. The manager has told us we need to play more football, to concentrate more and to have more belief. We've a good opportunity this year to finish in the top six.

"If we can play our football, rediscover our strength at the back and concede fewer goals, we can finish fifth or sixth and we'll do everything to do that.

"We will try because we are professionals and we want to win every single game, but to finish outside the top six would be a major disappointment."

Queudrue feels the players must raise their game defensively, particularly if they are to have any hope of beating Sporting and reaching the last eight.

"Hopefully, we can stay strong at home, where we have rarely lost this season, and if we can keep a clean sheet that will be good for us and give us a lift for the second leg," Queudrue said. "If we can do that, maybe things can turn round for us because we've conceded too many goals lately.

"Our strength last year was in defence, and we were the same in the first half of this season, but we've lost it now. We are trying to get it right. We are working on it week in, week out, trying to improve, and we have to be positive.

"We're at home with the fans behind us. If we score at least one goal without conceding then that will be crucial if we are to go through, because they are difficult opposition."

The Middlesbrough manager Steve McClaren's plans have been hindered by a goalkeeping crisis, which could have forced him to throw the rookie 18-year-old David Knight in at the deep end after Carlo Nash became the fourth Boro goalkeeper to pick up an injury when he damaged his groin at Villa deputising for Mark Schwarzer, who was already out with a knee problem.

With Ross Turnbull on the sidelines with a broken hand sustained while on loan at Barnsley and Brad Jones struggling with a shoulder injury picked up during his loan period with Blackpool, the academy youngster Knight was facing the possibility of a remarkable first-team debut.

But Schwarzer and Jones both trained yesterday and appear set to figure as starter and substitute respectively, much to the relief of Queudrue. "Having Mark back would also give us a bit of confidence because he is a very good goalkeeper," Queudrue added.

The striker Mark Viduka also joined in first-team training as he continues his recovery from a lengthy lay-off with a hamstring problem, but it is expected that the Sporting match will come too soon for the Australia international.