By Tony Leighton
Milton Keynes Dons' hopes of reaching the npower League 1 Play-Offs for a third successive season are fading fast.
But manager Karl Robinson, despite the trials and tribulations of a campaign badly hit by injuries, is refusing to give up the fight.
Second in the table in early December and still in the top six a month later, the Don's have slipped away in a 13-match run that has brought just 12 points.
Robinson described the final half-hour of Tuesday evening's 2-1 defeat at Crewe Alexandra as "embarrassing," his team having surrendered the lead to lose.
Two Mathias Pogba goals won the game for the Railwaymen after Patrick Bamford had put MK ahead in a game which the visitors finished with 10 men.
Central defender Anthony Kay's late dismissal will further restrict Robinson's selection options as he looks to put his team's promotion bid back on track.
The manager now reckons that the Dons need to win six of their last eight games to have a chance of a top six finish.
"It's going to be difficult," Robinson admitted to football-league.co.uk. "But," he added, "you've got to have an inner belief.
"I'll ask the players if they think it's achievable, and if anyone doesn't think so then they're not going to play in any other games.
"If you fall short there are different levels of success, and all you can do is ask the players to try their best. If they do that I'll back them.
"I'll ask them to play their best from now until the end of the season, and I feel that among the group there's enough quality to go out and win football matches."
Quality there may be, but not quantity. Injuries have hit so hard that at Crewe the Dons had only four players on the subs' bench rather than the seven allowed.
Robinson explained: "We've played 13 cup games this season in addition to our league fixtures, and with the smallest squad in the league injuries have cost us.
"We've had key players out like Luke Chadwick and Stephen Gleeson, players who were in the [PFA] League 1 'Team of the Year' last season.
"Out of the last seven games we've played I've had to make two substitutions because of injuries in every single game.
"The difficult thing for me has been being unable to strengthen last year's team during this season. I've had to fill in the gaps."
The odds are now heavily stacked against the Dons reaching the Championship after going so close with their fine efforts of the previous two seasons.
Robinson, however, is not disheartened as he approaches the run-in to the end of the campaign. "I've enjoyed it more than the last two years," he said.
"We overachieved in those two years and where we are right now is probably where our budget is. But this season has made me a better manager.
"It's been a great challenge for me tactically and mentally, trying to deal with the adversity of the season, and I know I'll come back a lot stronger next year."
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