PREMIER LEAGUE: Aston Villa 1 Middlesbrough 1
Aston Villa retained their title of come-back kings of the Premier League with a second half fight back against feisty Middlesbrough, but the hosts' share of the spoils came in controversial fashion.
Martin O'Neill had called on his young side to win every remaining game in pursuit of European football, but until the 72nd minute, when the home side were awarded a dubious penalty, a loss appeared more likely.
Boro, desperate to brush aside the humiliation of that FA Cup defeat against Cardiff, had taken a deserved lead after Stewart Downing caught Zat Knight on the back foot.
But referee Steve Bennett threw Villa a second-half lifeline, awarding a spot kick after Luke Young was adjudged to have handled the ball; Gareth Barry duly obliged.
Villa have now secured 16 points after coming back from a goal down this season, but on this occasion it was more luck than justice.
O'Neill made just one change from the side who showed such resilience against Arsenal, with Knight restored at the back for the injured Curtis Davies.
Middlesbrough fans had chosen to vote with their feet after their side's FA Cup exit at the hands of Cardiff City with just 88 supporters taking up official allocation in the corner of the Doug Ellis stand.
Villa's usual self-assured style of play, which had seen them go 12 matches unbeaten, was lacking as they chose a more cautious approach from the start. Perhaps the players had realised the importance of the next few weeks in their quest for European football, but that opened the door for Boro.
In just the seventh minute the visitors showed more desire with Emanuel Pogatetz blasting the ball up in the air only for Robert Huth to head it just over Scott Carson's bar.
Ashley Young, playing in a less accustomed role on the right, looked out of place for the opening quarter although he did set the pacy Agbonlahor on a couple of runs - the best of which saw Villa's young England International denied first by David Wheater and then Mark Schwarzer.
Shaun Maloney then dug out John Carew who had caught Boro napping at the back but his pass-come-shot was no problem to Schwarzer in the Boro goal.
Knight, who has had to bide his time for a first team recall, was then caught under no real pressure with an untimely clearance which fell to the feet of a free-running Stewart Downing.
Downing looked up and made no mistake with his finish in the 24th minute with a goal to stun the home supporters.
With ten minutes of the half remaining and no real chances on goal, Villa fans starting chanting for the emergence of "Super Sub" Marlon Harewood while Knight finally made amends for his early error with a fine tackle to deny Tuncay.
Agbonlahor then found Maloney in space but as he tried to turn Shawky, he was felled and Villa were awarded a free-kick.
Ashley Young stepped up but his right-footed effort deflected off the wall summing up Villa's night - set pieces almost always equal goals in normal Villa circumstances.
Shawky caused Villa all sorts of hassle and in the 38th minute fired a terrific right-footed shot which curled dangerously close towards Carson's goal.
Now O'Neill took action and switched Young to his favoured left side and at once he won another free-kick. This time the ball drifted over the face of the goal and as Maloney kept it in, Carew saw his effort cleared off the line by Mido.
As Villa trudged off at half-time to the rare sound of jeers from the huge home support , O'Neill again made changes with a double substitution with Harewood replacing Maloney and Mellberg replacing Craig Gardner.
The change in personnel lifted Villa spirits and impact player Harewood made his presence felt, picking up on a fine ball from ReoCoker to force a Schwarzer save.
And then came Villa's lifeline, after Boro defender Young was deemed to have handled the ball. Young claimed the ball had hit his shoulder but referee Steve Bennett pointed to the spot and as the Boro protestations loomed large, both Schwarzer and Mido were booked.
Barry, who had missed Villa's last penalty at Reading, coolly slotted home. Young was booked after the final whistle as he continued his argument.
Scorers: Downing (24) 0-1, Barry (73) 1-1.
ASTON VILLA: (4-4-2) Carson, Gardner (Mellberg, 45), Knight, Laursen, Bouma, Young, Reo-Coker, Barry, Maloney (Harewood, 45) Carew, Agbonlahor. Subs: Taylor, Salifou, Osbourne.
MIDDLESBROUGH: (4-4-2) Schwarzer, Young, Huth, Wheater, Pogatetz, O'Neill, Shawky, Boateng, Downing, Tuncay, Mido (Cattermole, 77) Subs not used: Turnbill, Rochemback, Johnson, Grounds.
Referee: Steve Bennett, Kent
Bookings: Middlesbrough - Shawky (foul), Schwarzer (dissent), Mido (dissent), L Young (dissent).