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Poor visibility cannot hide Middlesbrough's failings
WITH freezing fog descending on the recently renamed John Smith's Stadium, Middlesbrough's travelling supporters were complaining that they could not see the ball in the closing stages of their side's Championship game with Huddersfield.
Sadly, the same was true of goalkeeper Jason Steele as Huddersfield substitute Danny Ward fired in a long-range strike in stoppage-time.
Steele was unable to get anywhere near the ball, the back of the net rippled, and Boro slipped another point behind Brighton in the race for the final play-off place.
Things had looked very different 12 minutes earlier when Scott McDonald broke the deadlock and raised hopes of a first away win since early December and a return to the top six.
However, Alan Lee equalised with four minutes left, bundling home from close range after Steele had saved Peter Clarke's header, and when Ward drilled home from distance, Boro were forced to head home empty-handed.
In truth,they didn't really deserve to claim all three points on a night when neither side impressed, but after establishing a winning position, the failure to claim anything felt like a potentially serious blow to the Teessiders' play-off hopes. As was the case at the business end of last season, the concession of late goals is once again proving costly.
With a dense fog in evidence all night, this was never going to be an evening for the faint-hearted, but there was a timidity to Boro's early play that did not augur well. Tellingly, it was in evidence again as Lee and Ward struck late on.
Less than 30 seconds had elapsed when Theo Robinson touched Oscar Gobern's cross back to Lee Novak, and while the former Gateshead striker side-footed wide of the target, the strength of Huddersfield's early intent was clear.
Adam Clayton dragged a long-range attempt wide shortly after, and when Theo Robinson stabbed Neil Danns' cross-shot wide of the upright, the hosts had created three decent chances in the opening 12 minutes. That they failed to find the target with any of them was to Boro's benefit.
The Teessiders struggled to win enough of the ball to pose a problem before the break, with Josh McEachran proving too lightweight at the heart of midfield and the recalled Richie Smallwood not really able to play to his strengths from a wide position on the left.
McDonald came close with a fifth-minute effort that was all his own work, rolling full-back Jack Hunt out of the way to receive a throw in and firing in a dipping half-volley that whistled past the post, but there were precious little cohesion in the visitors' early passing play.
Boro’s Sammy Ameobi vies for possession with Huddersfield’s Paul Dixon
Things gradually improved as half-time approached, and after muscling his way on to McEachran's through ball, Smallwood might have won a 29th-minute penalty when Clarke appeared to push him over in the box.
Referee Stuart Attwell remained unmoved, and the incident proved a rare high point from a Boro perspective with the hosts continuing to display the greater tempo and urgency.
They failed to test Steele though, with the industrious Oliver Norwood heading Paul Dixon's cross wide before Clayton whistled a 20-yard effort just past the stanchion of crossbar and post after Novak laid the ball off to him shortly before the break.
The momentum of the game remained unchanged in the second half, with the Huddersfield midfield dominating possession and both George Friend and Nicky Bailey suffering some fraught moments in Middlesbrough's full-back berths.
Stephen McManus, who maintained his recent renaissance with another solid showing, blocked a long-range Danns effort shortly before the hour mark before Friend hammered a 25-yard strike harmlessly over the crossbar at the other end.
The excitement levels had hardly been sky high before the break, but if anything they dropped even lower immediately after the interval with neither side proving capable of exerting a sustained spell of pressure.
Scott McDonald had given Boro the lead
The poor quality of Huddersfield's pitch didn't help, but for a side that pride themselves on their passing ability, much of Boro's attacking play was alarmingly sub-standard.
The introduction of Rhys Williams, Emmanuel Ledesma and Curtis Main did little to create a spark, with Alex Smithies not tested at all in the Huddersfield goal for the vast majority of the second period.
However, just as the evening looked like ending in a stalemate, Boro struck from nowhere with 12 minutes left. The otherwise anonymous Sammy Ameobi wriggled himself into space on the right-hand space, and McDonald found sufficient space in the six-yard box to tap home.
That should have been that, but two Huddersfield substitutes intervened to turn the game on its head in the final four minutes.
First, Lee reacted quickest to stab home from inside the six-yard box after Steele had done well to claw away Clarke's header from a corner.
That was bad enough from the visitors' perspective, but worse was to come in the first minute of stoppage time. Jack Hunt fed the ball in to Ward, and the substitute drilled home a fierce low drive from 25 yards.
With Brighton and Leicester both failing to win, the effect on the league table was not too pronounced. The effect on Boro's already fragile morale, however, remains to be seen.
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