AN opportunity missed or a decisive blow to Middlesbrough’s promotion ambitions? Had Derby County not scored two stoppage-time goals against QPR, Tony Pulis might have been able to paint this tame surrender to Nottingham Forest as the former. Instead, with Boro now out of the top six, there has to be a fear it was the latter. Play like this in the remaining two matches, and there will definitely be no chance of them reclaiming a play-off spot.

Boro barely look Championship standard on this evidence, let alone a side harbouring realistic prospects of making it to the Premier League. Their cautious approach proved their undoing in the first half, and they were ripped apart in the second as a Forest side that had lost their four previous matches added two more goals and could conceivably have had another six.

Darren Randolph made two wonder-saves to avoid a complete meltdown, but this was a stark reminder of Boro’s limitations as they look to scramble into the play-offs. Three wins in a row had got them back into the mix, but it is worrying to think what might happen if they make it back into the top six if this is a true reflection of where they are at.

Ryan Shotton struggled throughout, conceding a first-half penalty that was converted by Joe Lolley and switching off unforgivably in the second period to enable Alexander Milosevic to double Forest’s lead.

Lolley added a third goal in the closing stages, and the game ended without Forest goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon having to make a single meaningful save. As an attacking entity, Boro were a complete no-show.

With so much at stake, this was never going to be an open affair. Nevertheless, the visitors’ approach was so negative it felt as though they were inviting trouble, and sure enough, it arrived when Shotton erred in the penalty area seven minutes before the break.

Prior to that, the Teessiders had been solid enough, but with neither Adam Clayton nor John Obi Mikel straying more than four or five yards in front of their three centre-halves, and neither Jonny Howson nor George Saville showing any inclination to get forward, Tony Pulis’ side were completely devoid of an attacking threat.

The opening half-hour was a complete non-event, with Forest’s only threat coming courtesy of a low shot from Matty Cash that was straight at Darren Randolph and Boro’s only sniff of a chance coming to nothing when Mo Besic shot harmlessly over from 25 yards.

To a degree, Pulis could argue his cautious approach was working, but it was only ever going to take one mistake for things to unravel, and it arrived shortly before half-time.

Shotton got on the wrong side of Karim Ansarifard as Ben Osborn rolled a pass into the striker in the box, and in his panic to make amends, the Boro defender clipped his opponent’s heel as he was shaping to shoot.

It could easily have been a red card given Ansarifard was about to let fly from the heart of the penalty area – surely it is a clear goalscoring opportunity if a player is in the act of having a shot – but referee Peter Bankes adopted a lenient approach and only issued a booking. The damage did not end there though, as Lolley stepped up to hammer home his spot-kick.

The first half ended with Aden Flint tamely heading over under pressure, and sensing the need to change his side’s outlook, Pulis enacted some major surgery at the interval. Jordan Hugill replaced Fletcher, while Marcus Tavernier was introduced in an attempt to add some midfield artistry, with Besic making way.

If anything though, Boro got worse, and the game would almost certainly have been beyond the visitors within four minutes of the restart had Randolph not produced yet another remarkable save.

The Irish international saved two points with a wonder-save in the final seconds of the recent home win over Hull, and he was at it again as he somehow tipped Ansarifard’s close-range volley onto the roof of the net. Forest’s Iranian striker looked certain to score as he met Joao Carvalho’s cross inside the six-yard box, but Randolph’s reflexes came to Boro’s rescue.

Sadly, they counted for nothing when Forest deservedly doubled their lead 16 minutes later. Again, it was Shotton at fault, with the centre-half switching off entirely to enable Carvalho to roll a quick free-kick to the overlapping Matty Cash.

He delivered a cross to the back post, and Milosevic hammered a superb first-time half-volley into the far bottom corner.

The second goal sparked a spell of incessant Forest pressure, with only Randolph’s heroics preventing the scoreline becoming embarrassing from a Middlesbrough perspective.

The goalkeeper kept out Lewis Grabban’s low effort with his legs after Shotton’s nightmare day continued as the former Sunderland striker robbed him of possession, and produced an even better stop moments later after Ben Osborn found himself in a huge pocket of space on the left of the box.

The extent of Forest’s creative superiority was staggering, and Carvalho almost delivered what would have been a thoroughly merited third goal when he curled against the post with 11 minutes left.

No matter. Forest’s third came six minutes later and saw Lolley slide home a neat finish after the effervescent Carvalho crossed from the left.