LEEDS United put in a much-improved showing to deny Middlesbrough the Championship’s top spot as part of a highly entertaining Monday night goalless draw at Elland Road.
Both sides had chances to win an end to end encounter with Souleymane Doukara denied by a wonderful save by Dimi Konstantopoulos and big-money purchase Jordan Rhodes squandering two second half chances for Boro.
Boro’s Ben Gibson was then sent off with one minute left for receiving his second yellow card, after which United squandered two more glorious chances to take all three points through Doukara and Charlie Taylor.
The game was overshadowed by two sets of ongoing protests, one between chairman Massimo Cellino and Sky and the other between Cellino and the club’s fans.
While Cellino criticised Sky’s continued broadcast of Whites games in the match programme, outside Elland Road the Time to go Massimo group beamed a series of colourful messages onto the East Stand.
The £2,600 stunt was paid for by crowdfunding and masterminded by EMF Technology, the company famed for projecting a naked image of television personality Gail Porter onto the Houses of Parliament in 1999.
On the pitch, Whites head coach Steve Evans named the side that started last weekend’s defeat at home to Nottingham Forest with striker Chris Wood still out with a hamstring injury.
That meant Mirco Antenucci again starting - presumably in a lone striker role as against Forest - with Souleymane Doukara and Stuart Dallas down the flanks.
Lewis Cook looked likely to again be asked to thrive in the false no 10 role, ahead of Toumani Diagouraga and Liam Bridcutt in defensive midfield.
Liam Cooper again partnered Giuseppe Bellusci at the heart of defence with club captain Sol Bamba again on the bench.
Charlie Taylor started at left back with Scott Wootton at right back and Marco Silvestri in goal.
Alex Mowatt only made the bench for Leeds where there was also a place for Scottish striker Lee Erwin.
Boro boss Aitor Karanka, meanwhile, finally gave a full debut to big-money purchase Jordan Rhodes upfront, as part of a team that also featured former Whites midfielder Adam Clayton.
But it was Leeds who began the game the brighter with Doukara and Antenucci actually starting as a front two with United’s formation perhaps best described as a 4-2-2-2 with the frontmen supported by Cook and Dallas just behind with Diagouraga and Bridcutt in front of the back four.
Leeds immediately won the ball from kick-off and soon won the game’s first corner through Charlie Taylor which led to Dallas blazing over the bar.
A few minutes later, Doukara broke away down the left and cut the ball back to Antenucci whose close range shot deflected over by Ben Gibson for a corner which was eventually cleared.
Boro offered little immediate danger and were handed their first opportunity to threat with a 12th-minute free-kick which led to Ritchie De Laet’s low cross being hacked away by Bellusci.
And it was panic stations seconds later as a Gaston Ramirez shot from the right flew towards Marco Silvestri whose weak parry was scrambled away for a corner by Bellusci.
Bellusci was then on course to save United’s bacon from the resulting corner with the Italian clearing off the line after another effort from Gamirez which followed a weak punch from Silvestri.
United survived the scare and were then saved by the ball adjudged to having run out of play ten minutes later when Rhodes clinically headed home a right flank cross.
A fierce shot from Dael Fry was then well held by Silvestri, after which Leeds countered with pace, with Evans furious that the Whites were not awarded a free-kick.
Just before the half hour mark, Antenucci let rip with an effort on the edge of the area which was crucially blocked.
Clayton then became the first player to be cautioned when taking out Cook 35 yards from goal and the subsequent Cook corner led to United hitting the crossbar through a needless flick from Da Laet, after which the ball was hacked clear.
Moments later, Doukara fizzed a fine long range effort just over with United giving at least as good as they got against the Championship’s second placed team.
With Middlesbrough struggling to threaten, United then picked up their first booking when Diagouraga took down Christhian Stuani, after which a long-range Ramirez effort was some way off target.
And after an uneventful one minute of injury time, United left the field to a decent applause against a Boro side who could easily have been at least 1-0 down, for all that they themselves caused a double scare themselves early on.
There were no changes made during the interval and the second half began with Silvestri hacking a clearance away for a Boro throw.
The ball was eventually worked to Stuani but his low cross was well held as Silvestri made amends.
Stuani and Cooper were then involved in a hefty collision near the touchline and as the duo recovered, mobile phone lights shined all around Elland Road amid chants of “only one Ali Brownlee” in tribute to the popular BBC Tees presenter and football commentator who died on Sunday, just three months after being diagnosed with cancer. A nice touch.
Play was back underway a few minutes later with Boro probing but frustrated in particular by a tough tackling Diagouraga.
But just before the hour Leeds were saved by another goal-line clearance and again from Bellusci who hacked away Nsue’s header which might have been going just wide in any case.
Leeds hit back with a counter attack led by Doukara which led to a corner which was cleared but Boro had another fine opportunity a few minutes later when De Laet’s cross found Stuani unmarked in the area.
The South Stand behind the goal probably expected the net to bulge but instead Stuani hit his volley into the ground and just over the top left of Silvestri’s crossbar.
Aitor Karanka then attempted to further up the ante by bringing on David Nugent and Albert Adomah for Ramirez and Stuani, seconds after Stuani had squandered another chance by heading over the bar.
Leeds were under the pump in what was quickly becoming a case of all out attack from the visitors in search of leadership of the division.
Dallas was looking particularly tired and Evans opted to withdraw the wide man for Mowatt with 20 minutes left.
Within seconds of Mowatt entering the pitch, United were denied the opener by a fantastic save from Dimi who somehow managed to parry Doukara’s goal-bound header wide from a pumped in long-range Taylor free-kick.
But Boro immediately countered at the other end and Rhodes had the goal gaping from just inside the area but Silvestri stood firm to a shot which was straight at him.
The game was anything but a goalless bore draw and United then worked the ball to Mowatt inside the area but the midfielder appeared to take too long to shoot and his effort went for a corner which was cleared.
Leeds were suddenly back on top amid Elland Road chants of “attack, attack, attack” with Antenucci then withdrawn for Erwin with 12 minutes left.
But Boro then looked likely to nick am 82nd-minute winner when Adomah’s cross found Rhodes unmarked but the striker managed to put the ball the wrong side of Silvestri’s post.
Bellusci was booked for a foul in the build up to the move, with Silvestri then showing safe hands to hold a Stewart Downing effort with six minutes left.
The game was serving up a frantic finale which then took another twist when Boro’s Gibson received his second yellow card for hauling down Erwin and sent off with a minute to go.
Sarcastic cheers then rang around Elland Road as Rhodes was subbed for Tomas Kalas amid the announcement of four minutes of injury time.
And United then squandered two glorious chances to make their numerical advantage count with Doukara shooting straight at Dimi before Taylor lashed over from the subsequent corner.
After the game, Leeds head coach Evans preferred to focus on his players’ impressive display rather than the protest against divisive owner Cellino.
“I wasn’t aware of it,” he said. “I think anyone who watches that performance wants to cheer for the team, don’t they?
“That’s as good a performance as I’ve had and I’ve won games. I’ve beat Hull here and that performance was much better than Hull.
“It’s not to do with us, is it? All we can do is focus on what is on the grass.
“The first thing you learn when you arrive at Leeds United as an employee is you focus on your responsibilities.
“My responsibility is the team and anything else lies above me with the chief executive or the owner.”
Pushed on the protest and fans’ frustrations, Evans said: “It’s not my job to get involved with supporters.
“I think supporters are quite rightfully the lifeblood of every club. I am a Glasgow Celtic supporter and Glasgow Celtic supporters are the lifeblood of that club.
“Leeds United supporters are long here before any owner arrives or head coach, manager, player, and they will be here for a long time after.
“But our supporters want to see performances on the pitch - that’s what disappoints them more than anything.
“I think tonight they go home having seen an outstanding performance, but at the same time our inconsistency has made us a mid-table side at this minute in time.
“But when you look at that performance tonight, Aitor Karanka probably goes back on the coach and says ‘well, if Leeds play like that every week and they’ve got to play teams challenging, then they will not be guaranteed to be picking three easy points up’.”
In fact, Evans said Karanka would likely be returning to the north east counting himself lucky to leave Elland Road with a point - a suggestion the Middlesbrough manager rejected.
“I would have had more luck if the referee and the linesman had seen the goal,” he said, referring to Rhodes’ disallowed first-half header.
“I think it was the key and if we had scored that goal (and the ball had not been ruled to have gone out of play in the build-up), the game would have changed completely.
“For that reason, he has to be more pleased than me because we had a lot more chances than them.
“They had chances the last minute when we had just 10 players, but I don’t know what we have to do here.
“Last year was a disallowed goal, this year another one. We have to keep going.”
Karanka was also frustrated by the bookings dished out to his players, with Gibson sent off late on for collecting two yellow cards.
“Maybe both of them have been yellow cards, but once again I can’t understand why it’s so easy to show us yellow cards and it is not the same for the other teams,” he said.
“There were a lot of moments that they deserved yellow cards and sometimes red cards.”
Leeds United: Silvestri, Wootton, Bellusci, Cooper, Taylor, Cook, Bridcutt, Diagouraga (Murphy 90), Dallas (Mowatt 70), Doukara, Antenucci (Erwin 78). Subs not used: Peacock-Farrell, Coyle, Bamba, Adeyemi.
Middlesbrough: Dimi, Nsue, Fry, Gibson, De Laet, Leadbitter, Clayton, Stuani (Adomah 66), Ramirez (Nugent 66), Downing, Rhodes. Subs not used: Agazzi, Kalas, de Pena, de Sart, Forshaw.
Referee: Craig Pawson.
Attendance: 20,424 (2,782 Boro)