RAY WILKINS smiled almost convincingly and attempted to convince two title rivals that Chelsea were happy with the modest product of a hard night's toil. While the rest of the Premiership - not to mention Gianfranco Zola - will certainly see this is as a golden opportunity lost, the stand-in coach did his level best to accentuate the positive even in the absence of a victory which would have put them on top of the pile for the first time in three months.
Wilkins called it a good point, and warned that neither Manchester United nor Arsenal will relish visiting the Riverside during the championship run-in. "Middlesbrough are a formidable side on their own ground, and that is why this is a good point," he said after last night's goalless draw.
"I just hope Manchester United and Arsenal are given as tough a game as this, and I believe they will be. One point is definitely better than none at all from what was a very British-style contest. We've showed an impressive sturdiness after coming under intense pressure."
Such a verdict will not stop Zola from appreciating in his heart of Italian hearts that he should have been the man to have put Chelsea firmly in sight of their first championship for 44 years. When, 15 minutes from time, he broke from the deep on to a ball from Dennis Wise there was only the Boro goalkeeper, Mark Schwarzer, standing between him and a match- winning strike. However, just when the little Italian wanted, with six matches left, to work his magic, the Australian spotted the intended trick, and his outstretched leg deflected Zola's shot away for a corner.
However, if the manager, Gianluca Vialli, was disappointed to have taken only a single point from the match then he will also realise it might have been much worse.
Middlesbrough may have endured something of a miserable season, but four wins in five matches has significantly lifted their spirits, and made them all the more formidable.
They have the other two contenders to play at the Riverside and are clearly relishing their role as king-makers or breakers; hence the surprising level of militancy they manage to summon up in a month when their season is meant to be over. Indeed, had it not been for the excellence of Chelsea's defensive covering work, Bryan Robson's team could have banked early scoring profits in a match which brought an even split of six bookings.
While Boro tried for all they were worth to achieve an early breakthrough, Vialli's pretenders consumed, it seemed, by the wait and see philosophy which has served them remarkably well away from home. They are famed for their final-furlong spurts, but the longer they lingered last night the less they looked capable of securing the three vital points.
It took the Londoners almost to the stroke of half-time to find a shot worthy of the name, Gustavo Poyet endeavouring, but failing, to demand something special from Schwarzer. It was not until midway through the second period, by which time Roberto Di Matteo had replaced Dan Petrescu, that their second effort on target came. Again, it hardly troubled Schwarzer to keep out Marcel Desailly's header.
Ultimately it was Zola's inability to hold his scoring nerve that denied Chelsea the win. And while Wilkins made the best of it, Robson stated the worryingly obvious: "This makes it all the more difficult for Chelsea now."
Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Schwarzer; Festa, Cooper, Pallister; Gordon, Stockdale, Mustoe, O'Neill, Townsend; Deane, Ricard. Substitutes not used: Beresford (gk), Vickers, Maddison, Armstrong, Summerbell.
Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Ferrer, Desailly, Duberry, Le Saux; Petrescu (Di Matteo, h-t), Poyet (Morris, 69), Wise, Goldbaek; Flo, Zola. Substitutes not used: Hitchcock (gk), Lambourde, Forssell.
Referee: N Barry (Scunthorpe).