THIRTEEN days on from their exhilarating visit to Newcastle, the north-east air further down the coast proved less favourable for Sheffield Wednesday.
The Riverside Stadium has never been a particularly happy hunting ground for the Owls and that was further reinforced by their unconvincing efforts against a Middlesbrough side who won with plenty of comfort – and just a hint of swagger – a situation that they would not have been wholly expecting after playing the final half-hour with 10 men.
There are ways and means of exiting the cup and this was not one of them from Wednesday, who toiled on Teesside and worryingly produced their third sluggish performance in a row.
The fact that it took Carlos Carvalhal’s side until the 83rd minute to conjure their first effort on target was somewhat damning in the circumstances.
Aside from a bright performance from Barry Bannan, there were few other substantives to take, other than the fact that at least this was not a league game.
For Boro, a three-goal second-half represented an unexpected bounty – and all this without needing to call upon the striking duo of £6m newcomer Rudy Gestede and Jordan Rhodes.
Boro’s discipline and diligence has been their stock in trade under the watch of Aitor Karanka and the way in which they coped organisationally with the handicap of being a man light from the 59th minute, when Dani Ayala saw red after bringing down Fernando Forestieri, said everything about the considerable development under the Spaniard.
Like his fellow Iberian Karanka, Carvalhal is a meticulous coach whose preparation is thoroughly detailed and fastidious.
But on the evidence of their past three offensive performances, Wednesday are in need of another attacking plan, with their efforts being thoroughly token, albeit with the latest showing coming against a Premier League side in Boro.
The vim and vigour that they showed on their previous visit to Teesside, when they were unfortunate not to take anything home following a 1-0 loss in Christmas 2015, was conspicuous by its absence. A 3-0 scoreline may have been a little harsh on Wednesday in the game whose opening hour was eminently forgettable.
But their final half-hour when they had an extra man and would have expected to make considerably more inroads against the hosts was worthy of censure.
Fortune failed to shine on the Owls when young Joe Wildsmith had the sort of moment that all goalkeepers dread – but invariably suffer from time to time – as Alvaro Negredo charged down his 67th-minute clearance, the ball flying into the empty net for a killer second goal for Boro.
But their response was underwhelming, with Boro running out easy winners.
A largely sterile first half ensued between two well-matched sides with an obvious healthy respect for each other, with Karanka and Carvalhal having clearly done their homework on each other’s teams.
The shape and discipline from both sides was exemplary, but unfortunately, the entertainment factor was zero.
Boro had a couple of sniffs of goal, but it was pretty tepid stuff in the main, while Wednesday struggled to piece together anything worthwhile, despite being tidy enough in possession.
The only incident of note in a dull-as-ditchwater opening half-hour saw Ayala, making his first appearance since October 22, fire over on 27 minutes with Wildsmith stranded outside of goal following a free-kick.
Another rare moment of animation seven minutes later saw Adama Traore cut inside and saw his low shot blocked by Bannan, while Wednesday’s sole sight of goal came when Forestieri was denied close in by a saving clearance from Ayala.
A goalless scoreline at half-time at least provided Owls with cause to believe that the job was at least half done following a solid if unspectacular away-day.
But they palpably failed to find their attacking mojo on the restart, whereas Boro found a way.
A sweet opener arrived on 58 minutes with a moment of quality not in keeping with the afternoon. It came from home captain Grant Leadbitter, whose sweetly-taken precision free-kick flew past Wildsmith.
The Owls were desperate for a shot in the arm and it came within a minute when Ayala was dismissed.
As Forestieri threatened to burst into the box, he was brought down by Ayala.
While it was unclear whether the defender was the last man, referee David Coote showed no hesitation in brandishing a straight red card.
It was a potentially game-changing moment, but in the event, it turned into a routine afternoon for Boro.
Wildsmith’s horror moment in dallying with the ball at his feet, allowing Negredo to speculate to accumulate and register his sixth goal of the campaign via a charge-down, helped a bad afternoon turn into a pretty dismal one for the Owls – and more especially for the 3,283 visiting fans.
Cristhian Stuani’s strike was then ruled out for offside and, while Wednesday poured bodies forward in the last 10 minutes, they struggled to get behind the well-marshalled Boro rearguard.
Bannan, David Jones and the quiet Forestieri had half-chances before Boro ended the game in style in stoppage-time with Marten de Roon emphatically blasting home a rebound after Wildsmith saved Stuani’s initial effort.