Aston Villa 1 Middlesbrough 1: Villa saved by Barry's contentious penalty

Martin O'Neill, having blamed the weekend's FA Cup surprises for cutting Aston Villa's chances of playing in Europe next season, watched his side do themselves no favours last night when they had to be satisfied with a fortuitous point in a match they needed to win.

Gareth Barry's second-half penalty, harshly awarded for handball against Luke Young, cancelled out Stewart Downing's goal for Boro midway through the first half. But with their game in hand over Liverpool and Everton now gone, Villa are a daunting seven points behind the fifth place they need to claim a Uefa Cup place, if they are not to be forced along the InterToto Cup route.

Given the feebleness of Boro's performance in their FA Cup defeat by Cardiff, it was hardly a shock to see changes in Gareth Southgate's line-up. Julio Arca and Fabio Rochemback were omitted in midfield and illness ruled out the striker Afonso Alves, the club's £12m record signing.

Those who were spared the axe responded with a spirit their manager found encouraging, although his mood was clouded by the penalty decision and he admitted his policy of not complaining about officials was being severely tested. "I don't like to go on because it always sounds like sour grapes," Southgate said. "But I've seen the incident again. Our lad's got his back to the play and the ball hits him and I don't see how it can be anything other than involuntary handball."

With a daunting fixture list ahead Boro could yet be dragged into a relegation fight. Yet they were dominant in the opening half, playing a high-energy game that kept O'Neill's team on the back foot and, though they had more defending to do in the second half they denied the home side even one clear-cut chance.

"We were poor and it is a setback," O'Neill admitted. "We need to be able to make chances even if we don't play well but we just weren't creative enough."

Boro went ahead after 23 minutes with a goal that was an uncomfortable experience for Zat Knight on his first start since Boxing Day. The defender, recalled after an injury to Curtis Davies, put his side in trouble with a poor clearance, picked up by Downing, and though he tried to retrieve the situation by closing down the England winger, he was passed with ease. With the way to goal clear, Downing beat Scott Carson with a low left-foot shot.

Villa were lucky not to be two goals behind within six minutes of the restart. Downing, who had already forced O'Neill to take Craig Gardner out of the firing line at right-back, sped past his replacement, Olof Mellberg, and squared the ball invitingly for Mido, who should have scored but lifted the ball over the bar.

Instead, Villa were given a lifeline when referee Steve Bennett ruled against Luke Young as the Boro player turned and spread himself to block Ashley Young's shot with 17 minutes left. If the ball struck Young's hand it was accidental. Barry duly sent Mark Schwarzer the wrong way from the spot.

Goals: Downing (23) 0-1; Barry pen (74) 1-1.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Carson; Gardner (Mellberg, h-t), Knight, Laursen, Bouma; A Young, Reo-Coker, Barry, Maloney (Harewood, h-t); Carew, Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Salifou, Osbourne.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; L Young, Wheater, Huth, Pogatetz; O'Neil, Shawky, Boateng, Downing; Mido (Cattermole, 83), Tuncay. Substitutes not used: Turnbull (gk), Rochemback, Johnson, Grounds.

Referee: S Bennett (Kent).

Booked: Middlesbrough Shawky, Mido, Schwarzer, Boateng, Huth.

Man of the match: Downing.

Attendance: 39,874.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test