Burnley edge ever closer to safety with important point as Middlesbrough slip further towards drop

Jason Mellor
Burnley look all but safe after an important away point: Getty

Gareth Southgate will no doubt have come to the conclusion that the country's prospects in central defence look rather more rosy than Middlesbrough's future in the Premier League.

The England manager, himself a centre-back of some repute of course, was back at one of his former clubs to witness the lingering death of Middlesbrough's increasingly tenuous hopes of extending their stay in the top flight beyond a single season. That was in part thanks to another accomplished performance from Burnley's newest full international Michael Keane, the latest in a lengthening list of assured displays which was more than matched by his Middlesbrough counterpart Ben Gibson.

Stationed near to Southgate in the directors' box at the Riverside Stadium was David Moyes, Sunderland's increasingly embattled manager on a scouting mission before the Tees-Wear on derby later this month, by which time the Premier League's bottom two sides could find themselves already condemned to the Championship.

They've grown used to great escapes in this part of the world, but they usually occur a little further up the A19. In the absence of any semblance of Moyes' side showing the stomach for a relegation battle this season, Middlesbrough are unlikely to provide the Houdini act in their stead.

Once again, they couldn't be faulted for their effort and commitment, but not for the first time this season they lacked any kind of quality in the final third. Their wait to secure a fifth league win of the season stands at 112 days and counting since Swansea were defeated here before Christmas.

Both sides struggled to score too many clear-cut chances (Getty)

Steve Agnew can't be accused of failing to freshening things up, the caretaker manager employing a fourth change of system in his fourth game in charge by employing three centre-backs. While it provided the hosts with plenty of width in their efforts to out-flank their opponents, ultimately it proved futile for the division's lowest scorers.

Burnley have previous for this kind of result in the North-East, with league and cup visits to the Stadium of Light this season having ended goalless as a pointed edged them ever closer to securing back-to-back seasons in the top flight for the first time since the mid-1970s. This was only the fourth point they have earned away from Turf Moor this season, but a victory of any sort in their remaining six matches will be enough to avoid what has been something of a yo-yo existence between the higher echelons of English football in recent years.

On one of the rare occasions Keane wasn't there to keep Middlesbrough at bay, the visitors were indebted to a stunning save from Tom Heaton, the goalkeeper showing razor-sharp reaction to block substitute Alvaro Negredo's acrobatic scissor-kick volley midway through the second-half to ensure they returned across the Pennines with some reward for their efforts.

Both managers cut agitated figures on the touchline (Getty)

They weren't without chances of their own. Robbie Brady, whose early free-kick grazed the cross bar, should have put them ahead early in the second-half when Ashley Barnes' dummy left his with time and space in the area, only for the Irishman to fire disappointingly wide.

Victor Valdes, aided and abetted by defender Bernardo, matched Heaton's heroics at the other end with a point-blank block to deny another substitute, this time Sam Vokes.

As Middlesbrough threw numbers forward in an increasingly desperate attempt to force a winner, Keane was fortunate to escape with a yellow card when he brought down Patrick Bamford on the edge of the box as the former Burnley loan forward homed in on goal. Matt Lowton's glancing header prevented Stewart Downing's free-kick from finding the net, and from the ensuing corner the full-back was again stationed perfectly to clear off the line from Daniel Ayala.

The ball subsequently found its way into the net, but was ruled out for handball by Negredo in a frantic finale which reflected perfectly the levels of desperation to which Middlesbrough have been reduced in their seemingly fruitless efforts to climb out of the bottom three. A failure to score for the 16th time this season provided the damning epitaph to another afternoon of frustration on the banks of the River Tees.

Teams:

Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Valdes; Ayala, Bernardo (Bamford 83), Gibson; Barragan; Clayton, Leadbitter, Forshaw, Downing; Stuani (Negredo 58), Gestede (Troare 68). Substitutes: Guzan, Fischer, de Roon, Fry.

Burnley (4-4-2): Heaton; Lowton, Keane, Mee, Ward; Boyd, Barton, Hendrick, Brady; Barnes (Tarkowski 90), Gray (Vokes 62). Substitutes: Pope, Flanagan, Westwood, Agyei, Arfield.

Referee: Martin Atkinson

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