Middlesbrough 0 Doncaster 0
THIS wasn't officially the end, but it certainly felt like it. Four points adrift of Blackpool and Cardiff – effectively five once goal difference is taken into account – Middlesbrough's promotion hopes could be over by the time they face Southampton in Saturday's evening kick-off.
For that, they only have themselves to blame. Presented with a golden opportunity to remain within touching distance of the sides above them this evening, they failed to see off a Doncaster Rovers side who are looking forward to trips to Hartlepool United and Yeovil Town next season.
For the 15th time this term, they failed to claim all three points at the Riverside, and if, as now looks likely, they eventually miss out on a top-six position, it will be their desperate home form that costs them.
No team in the current top 18 have won fewer home matches than Middlesbrough, and only Nottingham Forest in the entire division have scored fewer home goals than the 20 Tony Mowbray's side have mustered in front of their own fans. Clearly, that does not augur well ahead of Saturday's final home game with second-placed Southampton, a match Boro surely have to win to keep their promotion hopes alive.
Scott McDonald wasted the best opportunity to add to their paltry home tally last night, glancing a close-range header wide of the post at the start of the second half, but Boro lacked a cutting edge throughout and rarely looked like overcoming the poorest side in the Championship.
In fact, things might have been even worse had Doncaster been awarded a first-half penalty when Hines appeared to foul Brown. Given how close things are at the edge of the play-off zone, perhaps we should all be grateful for small mercies.
Nevertheless, the importance of last night's game was underlined by the league table, which showed the Teessiders two points adrift of the play-off places at kick-off.
Time is running out in terms of the promotion push, so it was not really a surprise to see Tony Mowbray sticking with the positive formation that had proved fruitful at Derby on Saturday.
Marvin Emnes operated in a free role behind Lukas Jutkiewicz and McDonald, and the Dutchman was the focal point of most of Boro's early attacking.
Even when he did not have the ball, his movement created gaps for others to exploit, and the hosts almost profited from some confusion in the Doncaster defence in the 12th minute.
Jutkiewicz broke free down the right-hand side, and when he rolled the ball back to Tony McMahon, two Doncaster defenders pulled towards Emnes. That left Julio Arca unmarked at the back post, but the Argentine midfielder, who was recalled in place of Faris Haroun, stabbed a first-time volley against the base of the upright.
If anything, he probably had too much time to watch the flight of the cross, but the opportunity was merely the first of a number of chances that came Boro's way in the opening 25 minutes.
Stephen McManus headed over from McMahon's free-kick, Barry Robson was denied by a diving header from Rovers full-back James O'Connor, and Jutkiewicz saw his header from a corner tipped over by goalkeeper Gary Woods.
Possession was heavily concentrated in the Doncaster half, although a lack of natural width meant too much time was spent trying to thread a series of unnecessarily complicated through balls in to the front three.
The visitors, who were relegated when they lost to Portsmouth last weekend, played a number of their fringe players, but while they initially offered a limited threat in attack, they proved surprisingly well organised, particularly in midfield.
They might have proved even more obdurate had they claimed the lead in the fifth minute, but former Sunderland striker Chris Brown failed to find the target with a close-range header from O'Connor's cross.
Brown was in the thick of the action again 12 minutes before half-time, and this time Boro were fortunate to escape unscathed.
The striker spun away from Seb Hines with his back to goal, and was felled by what appeared to be a mistimed challenge from his opponent. Referee Darren Drysdale remained unmoved, however, and an increasingly edgy Riverside crowd breathed a huge sigh of relief.
They were inhaling sharply again seven minutes later as Jason Steele produced a smart save to parry Simon Gillett's fiercely-hit shot, and while Jutkiewicz tested Woods with a long-range daisy-cutter on the stroke of half-time, the interval arrived with the visitors meriting their parity.
Boro's stuttering home form hardly provided cause for optimism, and the tension increased when the hosts wasted a gilt-edged opportunity six minutes into the second half.
Afforded time on the left-hand side, Justin Hoyte delivered a teasing cross that appeared to be perfectly positioned for Scott McDonald. The Australian was no more than four yards out when he met it, but his glanced header whistled wide of the upright. In the context of the wider promotion picture, it was an extremely costly miss.
Another followed shortly after, with Hines heading over from a decent position in the penalty area, but with Doncaster's players gradually sitting deeper and deeper, the hosts were at least able to camp themselves in their opponents' half for most of the second period.
Every now and then they were threatened on the counter-attack, and Julio Arca was forced to produce an excellent last-ditch tackle midway through the second half to prevent John Oster finding Brown in the area after he broke free of the offside trap in the left-hand channel.
Boro attempted to produce a late rally, but even the introduction of Saturday's match winner, Curtis Main, had little effect. There was almost late drama with one minute left, but Adam Hammill's mishit cross rebounded off the crossbar with Woods finally beaten.