And then there were four. The number of clubs striving to avoid relegation from the Premiership was effectively reduced to a queasy quartet yesterday, Middlesbrough's slightly flattering success at The Hawthorns hoisting them eight points clear of the relegation places - or the West Midlands zone as it is in danger of becoming known.
West Bromwich would have sucked Middlesbrough into the scrap for survival had they won, but two goals by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink put Steve McClaren's side in control by half-time. Despite Albion's territorial dominance, the 54th-minute dismissal of Nigel Quashie left them scant hope of preventing the visitors moving five points ahead of them.
Middlesbrough's next match is against Albion's neighbours and companions in distress, Birmingham City. Whatever happens, the stage is set for a bone-jarring six-pointer between Birmingham and Albion a week next Saturday, eight days after Bryan Robson's team receive a Chelsea outfit with one eye on Barcelona.
Since Middlesbrough's 4-0 home defeat by Aston Villa, they have trounced Chelsea and reached the last 16 of the Uefa Cup and the FA Cup quarter-finals. While Robson's former club played five high-pressure fixtures in 15 days, Albion jetted off for a training break in Dubai, where one player let off a fire extinguisher.
Quashie's indiscipline in kicking George Boateng in the lower back, as the Middlesbrough midfielder tumbled under his challenge, was tantamount to pouring petrol on the fires lit by Hasselbaink during the first half. The Dutch striker, whose contract expires shortly, has now put on a timely spurt of seven goals in 10 games.
His first here highlighted his burgeoning understanding with Aiyegbeni Yakubu. From the Nigerian's through pass, Neil Clement played Hasselbaink onside, and although Tomasz Kuszczak got a strong touch on the ball, the shot still ended up in the net.
The second came after Hasselbaink was fouled by Curtis Davies just outside the 18-yard area. His free-kick hit Ronnie Wallwork, who was stationed on one end of Albion's wall, wrong-footing Kuszczak.
McClaren, who saw the win as vindication of his switch from a 4-5-1 formation to a counter-attacking 3-5-2, admitted Quashie's folly was "an important moment for us". The Middlesbrough manager added: "It's a damn sight easier against 10 men than 11. But the harder you work, the luckier you get. We're getting the breaks at the moment. We have put ourselves in the position we are in at this stage in the Premiership and we need to get out of that position.
"We are doing well in the FA Cup and the Uefa Cup but the priority is the Premiership, which is why this is a massive three points."
Robson refreshingly declined to defend his £1.3m buy from Southampton. However, he claimed Albion were "by far the better side", noting that Middlesbrough had only three shots. Was it now a four-team dogfight? "If Birmingham win there, Boro are back in it," the Albion manager said. "For me, them and Aston Villa are still involved."
Goals: Hasselbaink (17) 0-1; Hasselbaink (44) 0-2.
West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Kuszczak; Albrechtsen (Inamoto, 82), C Davies, Clement, Robinson; Greening, Wallwork, Quashie, Kamara; Campbell (Kozak, 59), Kanu (Ellington, 82). Substitutes not used: Kirkland (gk), Martinez.
Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Schwarzer; Riggott, Southgate, Queudrue; Parnaby, Cattermole, Boateng, Mendieta (A Davies, 80), Pogatetz; Hasselbaink (Maccarone, 72), Yakubu (Viduka, 89). Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Ehiogu.
Referee: M Dean (Wirral).
Booked: Middlesbrough: Southgate, Cattermole. Sent off: West Brom: Quashie.
Man of the match: Boateng.
Attendance: 24,061.Reuse content