FOR Middlesbrough, this was an unwelcome case of history repeating.

In the second half of last season, ten-man Boro slipped to a one-goal defeat at Bramall Lane that jeopardised their position in the play-off places and exposed many of the failings that would ultimately prevent them from making it to the Premier League.

Last night, the Teessiders once again finished with ten men as another one-goal defeat in South Yorkshire dented their hopes of making the play-offs. Time will tell whether their continued shortcomings mean they miss out on the top-flight once again.

This time it was Daniel Ayala rather than Grant Leadbitter seeing red, with the Spaniard picking up two yellow cards in the space of seven second-half minutes as he lost his head in the face of some persistent Sheffield United attacking.

With a numerical disadvantage, Boro never really looked like cancelling out Richard Stearman’s 61st-minute header, but rather than bemoaning his side’s efforts with ten men, Tony Pulis will be more concerned at their limitations with 11 players on the field.

This is a Boro side that consistently give their all, but you need quality to win promotion, and in the attacking third, that continues to be sorely lacking. Sheffield United have now scored 19 more goals than Boro this season, and that statistic, more than anything else, explains why they currently look much better bets to go up.

They were the more threatening side for the majority of last night’s game, gradually turning the screw in the second half after a relatively even opening period, and even the belated arrival of Britt Assombalonga proved insufficient to turn the game back to Boro on this occasion. It was a very similar game to the two legs of last season’s play-off semi-final, and given the Teessiders’ impotency against Aston Villa, that has to be a concern.

They could yet meet Sheffield United again in this season’s play-offs, and while Norwich City might be hogging the headlines when it comes to surprise pushes for the Premier League, the Blades’ pursuit of a top-flight place is every bit as notable.

Billy Sharp has been the spearhead of their push up the table – the striker went into last night’s game having scored more league goals than any other player in the country – but Chris Wilder’s side boast an attacking threat from a variety of different positions on the field – something of a contrast to Boro – and their potency was apparent from an early stage.

David McGoldrick saw a third-minute effort from the left-hand side of the area saved by Darren Randolph, and Sheffield United would have been ahead three minutes later had it not been for an even more impressive piece of goalkeeping from the Irishman.

Mark Duffy’s 25-yard strike was arrowing into the bottom right-hand corner before Randolph flung himself to his left to claw the ball to safety. It was a magnificent sprawling save, and George Friend ensured it did not go to waste as he blocked George Baldock’s follow-up effort.

Boro were in danger of being engulfed at that stage, but while Sharp should probably have done better as he failed to find the target after swivelling in the box midway through the first half, the visitors gradually grew into the game.

John Obi Mikel was the catalyst of their recovery, calmly steadying the ship as he neatly rotated possession at the base of midfield. Both on and off the ball, the Nigerian oozes class, and while that should not be a surprise given his collection of Premier League and Champions League winners’ medals, it is still a surprise to see a player of his poise and ability operating in the second tier.

His arrival has added another dimension to Boro’s midfield play, although it has not really addressed a surfeit of graft over guile. As they tend to, the Teessiders worked tirelessly to close down their opponents last night, with Jonny Howson and George Saville supplementing Mikel’s combative qualities.

However, with Lewis Wing the only midfielder really looking to break forward in support of Jordan Hugill, the visitors offered precious little as an attacking force.

Ayala headed wide midway through the first half after Aden Flint nodded Saville’s free-kick into his path – an injury forced Flint off a few minutes later – but it was hardly a surprise that Boro’s best first-half moment came courtesy of some neat interplay between Wing and Hugill.

Wing’s crisp side-footed pass teed up his team-mate on the edge of the area, and Hugill’s curling side-footed effort was heading in before Dean Henderson tipped the ball over the crossbar.

Aside from Wing’s midfield prompting, Boro’s other main threat tends to come from set-pieces, and Ryan Shotton’s long throw almost resulted in the deadlock being broken at the start of the second half.

Henderson’s weak punch fell to George Friend, and the full-back’s header was destined for the net until John Egan nodded clear from just in front of the goalline. Stewart Downing, Flint’s first-half replacement, fired in a long-range effort as Boro kept the ball alive, and Henderson just about managed to fumble to safety.

That proved a rare moment of second-half threat from the Teessiders, whose main focus after the break was on keeping Sheffield United in check. The hosts became increasingly dominant as the second period wore on, both in terms of territory and possession, and while the Boro rearguard initially held firm, their attempts at resistance became increasingly frantic.

Ayala might well have conceded a penalty when he wrapped his arms around Gary Madine to prevent the striker getting a proper purchase on Ollie Norwood’s cross, but while the Spaniard got away with that misdemeanour, it sparked the meltdown that eventually resulted in his dismissal.

Ayala was booked in the 57th minute for a mistimed challenge on McGoldrick, and saw red seven minutes later when he picked up a deserved second yellow card for an equally reckless foul on Kieran Dowell.

Ayala’s dismissal might not have been as costly had it not come three minutes after the goal that ultimately settled things. For a side with so many six-footers, Boro have been surprisingly vulnerable at set-pieces recently, and their frailties in their own six-yard box were apparent again.

Norwood swung over a free-kick from the right after Mikel mistimed a tackle close to the touchline, and the onrushing Stearman outjumped two defenders to plant home a thumping eight-yard header. Had it not been scored against his own team, Pulis would have been purring at the finish.

Instead, the Boro boss threw on Assombalonga in an attempt to change things, but while the substitute saw a low strike saved by Henderson, he was unable to repeat his late heroics at the Hawthorns.