SOMETIMES, it is simply not meant to be. If Saturday’s home defeat to Norwich City was frustrating, with Middlesbrough failing to capitalise on a host of first-half chances, last night’s reverse to Bristol City was even more infuriating, with a litany of gilt-edged opportunities going begging. Sadly, wastefulness in front of goal has become the story of Boro’s season.

Their latest setback could well prove fatal to their hopes of making the play-offs, with Bristol City now having moved three points ahead of them. With seven games to play, Boro can still reclaim a top-six spot. Having picked up one point from their last six matches though, they hardly have the air of a side poised to claim promotion.

Not for the first time this season, they only have themselves to blame, with the attacking failings that were apparent at the weekend becoming even more glaring three days later.

Britt Assombalonga, George Saville and Jonny Howson all spurned golden chances – and that was just in the opening 20 minutes. Howson struck the post in the first half, Assombalonga hammered against the upright in the second. It was that kind of night.

At the other end, Adam Webster could not miss when he found himself unmarked from a corner shortly after the half-hour mark, and having won at Sheffield United on Saturday, Bristol City have now beaten two of their promotion rivals on their own ground in the space of four days. They are peaking just as Boro are falling apart.

Tony Pulis will rightly bemoan his side’s failings in front of goal, and whereas the Boro boss has come in for some justified criticism in the last few weeks, it is hard to see what else he could have done last night. Boro boast some of the highest-paid forwards in the Championship – in terms of their goals-to-chances ratio, however, they must also be some of the least effective. And some of the least composed under pressure.

Even the return of Stewart Downing was unable to help last night, with the winger proving unable to arrest a goalless run that now stands at three games.

Downing’s contractual impasse had become something of a farce, and the Teessider’s decision to sign a waiver scrapping the automatic provision of a one-year extension suits all parties. Downing gets to put himself in the shop window ahead of a summer move that now looks inevitable; Pulis gets to select the player he seems to trust and respect above all others. Consequently, it was no surprise at all to see the 34-year-old immediately restored to the starting line-up.

Downing started at left wing-back, with Pulis opting to stick with his five-man defensive formation despite dropping Daniel Ayala to the bench, and the former England international almost made an immediate impact.

Just four minutes had elapsed when Downing delivered one of his trademark crosses from the flank, but while Assombalonga’s downward header was heading goalwards, a back-tracking Bailey Wright hacked clear from just in front of the goalline. Nevertheless, in less than five minutes, Downing had already begun to justify his recall. He might not be as effective as he once was, but in terms of creativity and technique, he is still head and shoulders above most of his team-mates.

In his enforced absence since the turn of the year, Boro have averaged just one goal a game, although as Pulis repeatedly points out, a struggle to create chances is only a small part of the story. A failure to convert decent opportunities has been an even more pressing problem, and the failing was apparent yet again last night as a succession of gilt-edged openings went begging before the break.

The recalled Saville was at fault on the first occasion, side-footing over the crossbar from 12 yards out after Ryan Shotton rolled the ball into his path.

Howson set up that opportunity, closing down Webster to create chaos in the Bristol City defence, but while the midfielder’s frustration was obvious as he watched Saville blaze over the bar, he was responsible for an equally bad miss moments later.

Assombalonga teed him up in a huge pocket of space on the right of the box, but after taking an age to steady himself, Howson shot tamely into the legs of Bristol City goalkeeper Max O’Leary.

He should really have done much better, although he could hardly have been faulted when Boro came within a lick of paint of breaking the deadlock midway through the first half. Shotton nodded Downing’s cross into Howson’s path, and the midfielder hammered in a strike that flicked off Wright’s head before cannoning to safety off the inside of the post.

It felt like one of those nights, and that impression was reinforced on the half-hour mark when Bristol City claimed an opener that was completely against the run of play.

Darren Randolph had turned an early free-kick from Josh Brownhill around the post, but the visitors had not really threatened before Jay Dasilva swung a corner into the box. Boro had plenty of towering centre-halves to deal with the danger, but none of them were anywhere near Webster as he headed home from a completely unmarked position on the edge of the six-yard box. In terms of shooting themselves in the foot, Boro could hardly have been more self-damaging.

Things would have been worse had Downing not produced an excellent sliding block to prevent Brownhill from slotting home shortly before the break, and Boro were indebted to Randolph for an excellent save that limited the damage on the stroke of half-time.

Some of Bristol City’s counter-attacking interplay was superb, and the best passing move of the night ended with Andreas Weimann teeing up Jamie Paterson on the left of the box. He shot low towards the corner, but Randolph got down to make a fine stop.

Assombalonga steered Howson’s cross wide of the target at the other end, and there was no let-up in the frenetic nature of the action in the second half. However, there was also no change in the depth of frustration being felt in the home ranks.

Seven minutes into the second period, and a well-worked free-kick routine ended with Downing rolling Assombalonga behind the Bristol City defence. The striker’s low shot beat O’Leary at his near post, but for the second time on the night, the ball rebounded off the upright.

O’Leary clawed away Ashley Fletcher’s header a couple of minutes later, and when Howson flashed a shot wide of the target after driving into the area on the hour mark, a sense of inevitability had set in.

Marlon Pack wasted a great chance to make things safe for Bristol City, side-footing wide after breaking into the box with 20 minutes left, but with the home supporters growing increasingly fractious, the visitors successfully saw out their win.