CHRISTMAS is traditionally a time for giving, and full-back Stuart Parnaby was certainly in the mood for handing out presents last night as his last-minute error ensured a dramatic end to Middlesbrough's Carling Cup campaign.

With Boro's quarter-final clash with Blackburn heading into extra-time, Parnaby, who had been a half-time replacement for Matthew Bates, failed to clear Lucas Neill's punt from the back.

Shefki Kuqi turned the loose ball across the face of the six-yard box and his fellow forward, Paul Dickov, applied the final touch from close range.

The timing might have been harsh on the home side but, in truth, it was no more than Blackburn deserved after dominating in front of a sparsely-populated Riverside.

With the tough-tackling Robbie Savage running affairs at the heart of midfield, Boro suffered their first cup defeat of the season at the ninth time of asking.

The Teessiders' Carling Cup run might be over, but the repercussions of last night's game might not be finished yet. Emanuel Pogatetz seemed to spit at Savage four minutes before half-time and, if video evidence supports the Blackburn midfielder's protests, the Boro full-back can expect a lengthy ban.

Savage, never one to steer clear of controversy, undoubtedly made the most of the incident but while his spiky attitude is not to everyone's taste, at least his commitment could not be called into question.

Sadly, the same could not be said of the Middlesbrough fans. The decision to open just two sides of the Riverside Stadium reflected the supporters' indifference to the Carling Cup but, with the memories of last year's final win still burning bright, Steve McClaren was not about to play down the significance of last night's quarter-final clash.

Resisting the temptation to rest some of his leading lights ahead of the packed Christmas programme, the Boro boss made just three changes to the side that drew with Tottenham at the weekend.

Two of those were enforced, 18-year-old Adam Johnson replacing the concussed James Morrison and Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink coming in for flu victim Mark Viduka, while the return of Chris Riggott from suspension hardly represented a weakening of the ranks.

Riggott's presence proved vital during a subdued opening in which Boro struggled to settle against their physical opponents.

The muscular Kuqi proved an especially powerful presence up front, with neither Riggott nor Gareth Southgate ever looking totally comfortable amidst his shoulder charges and flailing elbows.

Kuqi's sixth-minute strike drew a routine save from Mark Schwarzer, before the Australian goalkeeper was forced into a rather more testing stop ten minutes later.

Neill's long ball sent Dickov scampering down the inside-right channel and Schwarzer did well to turn the striker's instinctive strike around the post.

The Australian was at it again on the half-hour mark, saving low to his left after Morten Gamst Pedersen's flick on had allowed Kuqi to scamper clear of Southgate.

With Savage also sending a diving header wide, Boro spent most of the first half camped inside their own half.

Fabio Rochemback maintained his poor form in front of goal with a horribly miscued strike but, with both the Brazilian and his fellow winger, Johnson, pressed into defensive duties, the home side's strikers were forced to fend for themselves.

Aiyegbeni Yakubu is capable of doing just that, of course, and by matching Kuqi's muscularity, Boro's leading scorer ensured Blackburn's centre-halves would not have things all their own way.

But, for all his industry, Yakubu was unable to engineer the kind of opening the Teessiders had created at will during last weekend's six-goal thriller with Spurs.

Indeed, when Boro finally created a meaningful opportunity on the stroke of half-time, it was centre-half Southgate who somehow failed to find the target from no more than six yards.

Pogatetz's free-kick - awarded after the tussle with Savage that saw the Blackburn midfielder accuse the Austrian of spitting - was deflected into Southgate's path by Hasselbaink, only for the skipper to stab the ball wastefully wide of the post.

Savage was clearly incensed by Pogatetz' reaction to his foul, and the volatile midfielder was even more aggrieved on the stroke of half-time.

He turned the ball into the net after Schwarzer had parried Dickov's half-volley but, with the striker having pushed Southgate in the back, the effort was rightly chalked off by referee Alan Wiley.

The start of the second half marked Parnaby's return following hamstring trouble and, within 12 minutes of his introduction, the full-back was making a dramatic last-gasp tackle to keep the scoresheet blank.

Kuqi's strength saw him wriggle free of Riggott but, after the Finn laid the ball across the six-yard box, Parnaby was on hand to block Pedersen's strike at point-blank range.

With the bit between their teeth, Blackburn continued to dominate as the home side were forced deeper and deeper into their own half.

Centre-half Ryan Nelsen headed a Pedersen free-kick wide when it looked easier to score from close range - the latter's final contribution before being replaced by Brett Emerton - while Arsenal loanee David Bentley flashed a drive wide after eluding Pogatetz.

McClaren's response to his side's general lethargy was the introduction of Massimo Maccarone. The Italian was fresh from his late brace against Litex Lovech last week, but initially offered little in the hole behind the front two.

Instead, it was left to Blackburn striker Dickov to break Boro hearts in the final minute of the game.

Parnaby failed to clear Neill's long ball forward and, when Kuqi crossed from the left-hand edge of the penalty area, Dickov evaded Franck Queudrue to tap home at the far post.

There was still time for Boro to mount one final attack and, in a frantic finale, Maccarone came within inches of stealing an unlikely reprieve.

The substitute met Yakubu's deep cross with a powerfully struck volley but could only watch on helplessly as it rebounded against the foot of the post.

* Rangers' manager Alex McLeish admits the recent form of Peter Lovenkrands has left him with a dilemma regarding the Dane's future at Ibrox.

Lovenkrands almost signed for Middlesbrough this season, with manager Steve McClaren deciding against pursuing his interest in the player after he arrived for a trial on Teesside.

He was the main target of the Gers supporters' anger earlier in the season as their poor domestic form saw Rangers slump 17 points behind Celtic.

However, a startling and unexpected return to form in the main striker's role in recent weeks has resulted in the 25-year-old scoring six goals in four games to help the club into the last-16 of the Champions League and get back to winning ways in the SPL.

Lovenkrands is out of contract at the end of the season but has knocked back an offer, reported to be much less than his current £17,000-per-week deal.

Result: Middlesbrough 0, Blackburn Rovers 1.

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