Play-off buffer eroded ahead of Aston Villa and Norwich tests plus Alex Neil’s honest assessment: Six talking points after Middlesbrough's loss to Preston

Daniel Ayala was sent off for Middlesbrough against Preston at the Riverside.
Daniel Ayala was sent off for Middlesbrough against Preston at the Riverside.

Middlesbrough suffered their second successive home defeat after a 2-1 defeat by Preston North End - and there was plenty to discuss after the game.

Just like against Brentford on Saturday afternoon, Tony Pulis' side allowed a first-half lead to slip through their grasp following Ashley Fletcher's 32nd-minute opener.

Yet there was more than a hint of controversy as Daniel Ayala's second-half red card flipped the game on it's head, allowing Preston captain Paul Gallagher to score from the resulting free-kick.

Substitute Jayden Stockley then headed home the winner nine minutes from time, meaning Boro's buffer inside the play-off places has now been eroded to just three points.

Here are some of the main talking points from the game:

Alex Neil’s honest assessment after game-changing decision

The Preston boss wasn’t the most popular figure inside the Riverside when he back-heeled the ball away to waste time at the death.

Yet his verdict on Ayala’s red card, which changed the game when Boro were 1-0 up, was a fair assessment.

Most agreed the Boro defender attempted to win the ball and a straight red at such a key moment in the game was extremely harsh.

However, Ayala’s decision to go to ground did seem a little reckless and left Preston’s Brandon Barker on the floor.

After the game Neil agreed the decision was cruel on Boro and asked for a clarification of the rules.

“If the rule is if you win the ball then it’s not a sending off then the lad certainly won the ball," said Neil.

“If the rule looks at how quickly you go into the ball and how high the foot is and a whole host of other things then you could understand why it might be a sending off.

“I’ll be honest with you, if I’m Middlesbrough I’m really disappointed but for us I’m really pleased.”

Referee has to be “100 per cent” says Tony Pulis

The Boro boss revealed after the game he spoke with referee Keith Stroud following the full-time whistle, with one incident understandably on the agenda.

Pulis felt the man in charge didn’t have a clear view of Ayala’s tackle and had to be certain before making such a huge call.

"I've watched it now from four different angles,” said Pulis after the contest.

“The referee is a long, long way from the challenge. Not only that, he's got players in between him and it looks from our view that he can't see the challenge.

"I've just said to him, to make a decision like that you have to be 100 per cent sure. You can't be 50% or 60% sure otherwise you're gambling.

“I think he gambles and makes a very poor choice. And it affected the game.”

Boro should have been out of site before the sending off

Following their second-half collapse against Brentford on Saturday, Boro dominated from the off against an in-form Preston side who hadn’t lost for 10 league games.

Neil’s side matched Boro up in the first half, playing with a back three and wing-backs, but struggled to relieve the hosts' relentless pressure.

The Lillywhites improved after the break after switching to a back four at the interval, but still Boro dominated - until Ayala’s dismissal.

After Ashley Fletcher opened the scoring on 32 minutes, John Obi Mikel hit the post while visiting goalkeeper Declan Rudd denied Jonny Howson and Fletcher.

Overall, Boro registered 22 shots on the night (with just four hitting the target) but failed to take their chances.

Riverside woes continue

When Boro won promotion from the Championship under Aitor Karanka three years ago, the Teessiders lost just two of their 23 home games in the league, winning 16 of them.

Karanka’s Boro were also incredibly efficient when they scored first and didn’t lose a single league game when they took the lead that campaign.

Boro’s home performances have been far less convincing this term, with Pulis’ side winning just seven of their 18 home games in the Championship.

The Preston defeat also marked back-to-back home defeats, both after taking the lead.

Ashley Fletcher in the right place at the right time - again

That’s three goals in five games for Fletcher after seemingly coming in from the cold to face Blackburn last month.

Once again the 23-year-old striker showed great awareness to lose his marker and find space for Mo Besic to tee him up on 32 minutes.

Fletcher’s shot took a deflection off Preston defender Jordan Storey but the forward still deserved credit for his clever movement and predatory instincts.

Boro looking over their shoulders with a top-two place long gone

Back-to-back home defeats have well and truly ended Boro’s automatic promotion hopes and left the Teessiders looking over their shoulders to stay in the play-offs.

Pulis’ men remain fifth in the table with ten games to go and are three points ahead of seventh-place Bristol City.

It doesn’t get any easier for Boro though, who face a tricky trip Aston Villa before hosting league leaders Norwich after the international break.

After that is a home clash with Bristol City, a fixture which was rearranged due to FA Cup fixtures in January.