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.
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