Middlesbrough slipped out of the Sky Bet Championship play-off places after succumbing to a 2-1 defeat at Sheffield United last night.
Lee Evans’ brace proved decisive for the Blades, who are now just a point behind Boro, who are two points adrift of sixth-top Millwall with four games to play.
Boro, who had skipper Grant Leadbitter sent off for two bookings in six minutes midway through the first half, saw Daniel Ayala reduce the arrears early in the second half.
Johnny Howson went close to equalising in the latter stages, putting a curling effort just inches wide.
Boss Tony Pulis was unhappy with the red card decision. He said: “For the second booking, if there was contact it was minimal – knowing that another booking takes the kid out of the game.
“In this country, it’s a game of challenges and referees have got to understand there are going to be times when players make honest challenges and they are going to give free-kicks away.
“In such a big game, to make that decision was very, very poor and very disappointing.
“In the first half, we never played with the tempo and the energy that you need to have.
“The three subs came on, gave us loads of energy and I thought in the second half we were absolutely fantastic.
“For me, if you can’t finish in the top two, you want to get in the play-offs, so this is where you want to be. This is not pressure, this is what we all want.”
Evans scored inside two minutes with a superbly-struck volley from the edge of the area which gave keeper Darren Randolph no chance.
Evans made it 2-0 after being fed by David Brooks and hammering his first-time shot past Randolph.
Boro used all three subs at the start of the second half with Britt Assombalonga, Fabio Da Silva and Adam Clayton coming on.
They quickly responded, as Stewart Downing’s free-kick was flicked on by Ben Gibson and Ayala stabbed home from close range.
But Boro could not find a leveller, as they slipped to seventh place.
Defender Gibson told mfc.co.uk: “We’ve come out in the second half with 10 men and showed unbelievable desire and commitment and we looked like we had 11 men.
“We know that’s how we need to start games. We come away from here frustrated and disappointed with the result but we’re very proud of the effort the players put in.”
Blades boss Chris Wilder said: “When you look at the quality of the opposition and the magnitude of the game as well, we played really well.
“We were outstanding in the first half. Credit to the opposition, but we contributed to our own downfall in the second half with the goal we conceded.
“We got tight and a little edgy.”
Sheffield Utd: Moore, Basham, Wright (Duffy 73), O’Connell, Baldock, Lundstram (Leonard 90), Lee Evans, Fleck, Stevens, Brooks (Donaldson 86), Clarke. Subs not used: Sharp, Lafferty, Holmes, Eastwood. Booked: Fleck. Goals: Lee Evans 2, 40
Middlesbrough: Randolph, Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend, Howson, Leadbitter, Besic (Clayton 46), Traore (Da Silva 46), Bamford (Assombalonga 46), Downing. Subs not used: Konstantopoulos, Cranie, Fry, Harrison. Sent Off: Leadbitter (25). Booked: Leadbitter, Traore, Da Silva, Friend. Goal: Ayala 48.
Ref: Darren Bond (Lancashire).