Middlesbrough FC 1 Stoke 1: Sheffield United heave a sigh of relief as Boro slip up - but hosts should also be grateful
After events on Teesside, attention switches to Wearside on Wednesday night and a ray of light arrived for the second-placed, but faltering, Blades ahead of business at the Stadium of Light against Sunderland.
Instead of Middlesbrough being sat just a point behind them in this absorbing tussle to accompany Burnley to the top-flight by the automatic route, the gap is three. Boro may still be coming for Sheffield United - but not quite as hard now.
While this was a good result for the Blades, it also was for the Teessiders, in truth. They should have lost; they didn't.
Ragged in a second period in which tension was palpable, Boro should be grateful for a point. The course of promotion rarely goes smoothly.
Stoke - who had thrashed Sunderland 5-1 in their last away fixture, were chasing a third straight away win for the first time since 2005 and there was plenty of evidence as to why.
Fortunately for Boro, the Potters conjured and spurned several opportunities in the final quarter.
An eighth successive home league win for Carrick's side went begging. If Boro want context, here is some.It was the first time that Boro had dropped home points since Bonfire Night. Back then, they were in 20th place.
There was a routine look to the opening scorer in Chuba Akpom. Fittingly, it was he who scored the 1,000th Boro goal at the Riverside. It put the hosts ahead.
It was a far from straightforward night. Stoke levelled on the stroke of half-time and were the better side after that.
A side with players to trouble the best on their day at this level, Stoke have underachieved so far in 2022-23, but were suddenly having some fun ahead of visiting Teesside and could be bracketed as one of those dangerous teams to play at this stage of a season with the pressure off.
Evidence of that arrived in the first period, with City having several threatening moments in transition - through the pacy duo of Ki-Jana Hoever and Tyreece Campbell in particular - with Boro living dangerously with some risky playing out from the back ensuring some heart-in-mouth episodes for home fans.
Going forward themselves, the hosts produced some trademark pleasing geometry with their intricate passing game, with Akpom and Riley McGree at the heart of it.
Their opener from Akpom had an air of inevitability, but Stoke’s response was concerted and the 1-1 interval scoreline was fair.
With 13 goals in his previous nine games at the Riverside, confidence is positively coursing through the veins of Akpom.
He missed a golden early chance and then shuddered the bar with a pinpoint curler. The Championship’s top-scorer and Boro’s go-to man was not to be denied.
By his own high standards, Akpom’s early miss, dragging a shot wide after being the beneficiary of Ben Wilmot’s weak backpass was a sitter. No matter.
After knocking on wood, he picked the pocket of Ben Pearson on half-way. Boro countered with swift incision. Aaron Ramsey and McGree took the play on and with Stoke stretched, Akpom took his season’s tally to 24 with a routine low finish.
Sharp keeping from Jack Bonham to keep out McGree’s deflected left-wing cross represented another scare. There was plenty of action towards the other goal too.
Campbell tested Zack Steffen, with Boro lucky not to concede a penalty moments earlier when the influential Josh Laurent went down under an untidy Ramsey challenge.
They were less fortunate before the break when Laurent’s crossfield pass caught out Ryan Giles. Hoever - who fired a good early chance wide - surged towards goal from the right with his shot creeping under the Boro keeper.
Boro’s sloppy start to the second period further emboldened the Potters as Boro got edgy.
A McGree free-kick was turned away at his near post by Bonham, yet the concerns in the technical area came from the home contingent up to the hour mark, a time in the game which has been productive for Carrick’s side of late.
Dan Barlaser and Marcus Forss were called for. The agitation continued to come for Carrick and co for once, reinforced when Will Smallbone’s low drive whistled just wide as Stoke wrestled control in midfield.
The outstanding Smallbone went close on a couple of other occasions, while Jacob Brown headed a glorious chance straight at Steffen. McNair nearly nicked it for Boro when he stabbed just wide. Over to you, United.
Middlesbrough: Steffen; Smith, Lenihan, McNair, Giles; Howson (Barlaser 65), Hackney; McGree, Akpom, Ramsey (Finch 87); Archer (Forss 65). Substitutes unused: Roberts, Mowatt, Fry, Bola.
Stoke City: Bonham; Hoever, Tuanzebe (Fox 66), Wilmot, Sterling; Pearson (Thompson 82), Laurent; Brown, Smallbone, Campbell; Gayle (Baker 86). Substitutes unused: Fielding, Taylor, Reddin, Holland-Wilkinson.
Referee: C Pawson (South Yorkshire).