Preston North End 1 Middlesbrough 1 - match report as the Lilywhites take a point against promotion-chasing Boro
Preston North End stretched their unbeaten run to nine games as they earned a battling draw with second-placed Middlesbrough at Deepdale.
Alan Browne gave the Lilywhites into a 43rd minute lead with a fine finish from just inside the box but Boro levelled less than a minute into the second half through substitute Marcus Tavernier.
Alex Neil's men looked the better side in the first half, carving-out some decent opportunities before Browne found the net, the closest being a Tom Barkhuizen shot which was cleared off the line.
It was the visitors who had the better chances after the interval without overly stretching PNE goalkeeper Declan Rudd.
North End rallied in the final stages as they looked for a winner and a couple of chances came their way, hence a nagging feeling an opportunity was missed to collect three points.
But a draw against a side very likely to be in the promotion shake-up was not to be sniffed at in the grander scheme of things.
Four points from back-to-back home games isn't to be sniffed at, considering the lengthy casualty list.
Jordan Hugill made a quiet return to Preston in the Boro attack, the striker making his first appearance back after January's Â£9.5m move to West Ham who have subsequently loaned him to the Teessiders.
He was handled well by Jordan Storey who returned to the North End back four because of an injury to Ben Davies.
The absence of Davies was one of three changes made to the side which had started last Saturday's 4-1 win over Blackburn Rovers - Brandon Barker replaced Callum Robinson who faces three months out with a torn hamstring tendon.
Louis Moult got the nod over Lukas Nmecha to lead the attack, PNE lining-in their usual 4-2-3-1 system.
North End could have taken the lead inside the first 90 seconds as Moult's flicked header sent Barker racing into space behind the Boro defence down the left channel.
Barker cut inside into the box but delayed shooting, that hesitancy allowing Lewis Wing to slide across him and take the ball behind for a corner.
It set the tone for the first 20 minutes, with the home side very much on the front foot against a big, physical Boro side.
Barkhuizen saw a shot cleared off the line by Aden Flint with a quarter of an hour played, the winger having met a cross from Barker.
Soon after, Browne through the Middesbrough half before feeding a pass outside of him to Moult, the striker's first-time curling shot going too close to keeper Derren Randolph who gathered comfortably.
The visitors began to get more of a foothold in the game, with them changing formation from 3-5-2 to match-up PNE after they lost Rudy Gestede to a hamstring strain before the half-hour mark.
Their best chance of the half fell to Daniel Ayala after North End had failed to clear a corner, the defender's shot cleared off the line by Barkhuizen.
Wing drove a shot over Declan Rudd's bar in the 35th minute before Preston got back on the front foot and built some pressure, resulting in them taking a 43rd minute lead.
Barker motored down the left-wing and fed a pass inside to Browne on the edge of the box.
The Irishman moved the ball out of his feet very well and then arrowed a low shot back across Randolph into the bottom corner.
North End's lead only lasted until 55 seconds into the second half, Paul Huntington misjudging the bounce of the ball as he went to clear a ball down the visitors' right flank.
Tavernier seized on the error and punished it, showing a good turn of pace to cut into the box and tuck a low finish past Rudd.
Barker went close to restoring Preston's advantage within four minutes, Barker's right-foot shot from the edge of the box helped over the bar by Randolph.
There were two headed chances for Tavernier just after the hour, one which Rudd saved easily and the second the Boro substitute glanced wide of the far post.
George Saville then put a header wide of the near post after connecting with a George Friend cross.
Nmecha replaced Moult in the 73rd minute as North End looked to try and stretch Middlesbrough's back line with a bit more pace.
In the closing stages it was Neil's men doing more of the attacking and looking to win the game, a couple of scrambles in the Boro box not quite falling into their favour.
As the clock ticked by, Storey hammered a shot over the bar from a narrow angle after the ball had fallen to him.
PNE: Rudd, Clarke, Storey, Huntington, Earl, Pearson, Gallagher, Barkhuizen, Browne, Barker, Moult (Nmecha 73). Subs (not used): Fisher, Woods, Hughes, Ledson, Burke, Maxwell.
Middlesbrough: Randolph, Ayala (Braithwaite 46), Batth, Flint, Fry, Clayton, Saville, Wing (Howson 48), Friend, Gestede (Tavernier 27), Hugill. Subs (not used): Assombalonga, McNair, Fletcher, Lonergan.
Referee: Peter Bankes (Merseyside)
Attendance: 10,990 (971 away)