Full-time: Sheffield Wednesday 1 Middlesbrough 0
THERE were two ways this match report could have gone after Middlesbrough's visit to Sheffield Wednesday.
The first way would be that Boro had ended their goal drought, and that the assault on the play-offs had finally spluttered into gear; that everything in the garden was once more rosy; and the smiles on the players' faces as they left South Yorkshire were as wide as the Tees.
The second would be that Boro once again failed to score, extending their drought into a 12th hour; and that their inertia was sending the Teessiders into a tailspin headed for the lower reaches of the Championship; but that the lack of goals had been debated, reasoned, proved and disproved with little need for further discourse on the subject.
The second scenario is good for nobody. No good for Boro, no good for the fans – who again travelled in great numbers to watch their team score no goals – and no good for sports writers, who have to pen a seventh match report without a single mark next to a Middlesbrough player's name.
Unfortunately, it was the second option. But as much as Boro were to blame for this, referee Andy D'Urso should shoulder some of the flak that Middlesbrough's drought continues.
For it was he that decided that Jacob Butterfield's 12th-minute strike – which hit two posts before rolling along the line into goalkeeper Chris Kirkland's hands – did not cross the line. His linesman was in accord. A goal was not given. An injustice? You can say so.
Replays were inconclusive. There is no goalline technology in the Championship, no Hawkeye, no 3D animations of the chance. Just a man, with a flag, standing still, with a referee in close quarters, waving play on.
The same referee would later say that it had indeed crossed the line. Kirkland would also say the shot was over. Half of the Kop would have seen it, not that they would have said it. How is it a goal now, but not then?
Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka, whose fury was compounded when Wednesday substitute Atdha Nehiu scored from the penalty spot after D'Urso awarded an 87th minute penalty and sent Dean Whitehead off for a handball, was reluctant to blame the referee for the defeat, and admitted that he was 'worried' about his side's goalless run.
“I am angry. I am worried, there are a lot of reasons to worry,” said Karanka, who handed a debut to Real Madrid goalkeeper Tomas Mejias. “We didn't play well, we weren't in the game from the first minute, we didn't score, we had one or two chances we didn't score from.
“I was unhappy with the referee and the linesman, who could not see a ball within a metre of him yet could see a penalty from 40 metres away. For this I am worried about a lot of things.
“I don't know if it was in or not. The linesman was there, he could have seen it, I don't know. The linesman would know better than me.
“I couldn't see if it was a penalty or not because I didn't see, I was worried because we didn't play too well, we weren't in the game, I am frustrated, I am disappointed, I am angry, I am worried.
“The pitch was difficult to play but we didn't play, we didn't fight. It's not just the players' fault, it's my fault, it's all of our faults. We need to train, we need to learn, because this is not enough.”
The 'goal' aside, the first 45 minutes was as drab an affair as could be imagined. Wednesday had the better of the chances, no more so when Leon Best – a former Newcastle striker – slid wide from Liam Palmer's cross on the half-hour.
Sheff. Wednesday keeper Chris Kirkland claws the ball back from the line
And, just before half-time, Mejias was called into action when Nathaniel Chalobah inadvertently headed goalwards, but the keeper expertly tipped the ball away.
Mejias was back in action after the interval, saving well from Sam Hutchinson, before Boro put a few passes together and went on the attack.
Kirkland kept the scores level with a fine piece of goalkeeping on the hour mark when he firstly denied Danny Graham, who had been slipped in by Butterfield, then Chalobah from distance on the rebound.
Mejias was called into action again on 78 minutes when he saved brilliantly from Giles Coke, but the new boy was arguably to blame for the late penalty concession.
The Spaniard raced out to meet a cross that he had no chance of winning, and Whitehead blocked the resultant shot on the line with his hand. D'Urso had no option but to dismiss Whitehead and award the penalty, duly dispatched by Nuhiu, to seal victory which will be considered extremely harsh on Boro.
Much of the pre-match discussion revolved around the omission of Jason Steele, who was left out of Karanka's matchday 18. The Spaniard was pleased with Mejias' debut and has told Steele he needs to work hard if he wants his place back.
“I know Tomas. He's not a surprise for me,” said Karanka. “I have known him a long time, I was not surprised. We lost though, I don't wish to speak about individual players when you have lost a game.
“Jason was the keeper when I arrived here. He was sent off, he was injured for three months. We had Shay in, now we have Tomas, we have Dimi, we have four goalkeepers now. It's an important position. Tomas is training better than him, Dimi is training better than him, he needs to train and to get his position back. People are asking me about Jason Steele but he needs to train.”