Ipswich Town moved back to the top of the Championship table after their 1-1 draw against Middlesbrough. Alex Jones reflects on the action.

East Anglian Daily Times: Leeds United were beaten at Elland Road in the early kick-offLeeds United were beaten at Elland Road in the early kick-off (Image: PA)

Set up perfectly

Not for the first time this week, Ipswich had a big chance going into the game. Leicester City and Leeds United were both beaten, the former losing 1-0 away at Plymouth Argyle while the latter were handed their first home defeat of the season as Blackburn Rovers took three points with the same scoreline.

It meant that the Blues had a chance to go three points clear of Leicester and four points clear of Leeds.

Immediately, permutations came to mind. If they could beat Boro, they’d need a maximum of two wins from their last three games to win promotion.

In fact, if they won the game and results elsewhere (from Leeds and Southampton) were to go their way in the next couple of weeks, Town would have been promoted before their next game away at Hull City. Now we're really jumping to crazy possibilities, right? They had a job to do first!

They don’t do things the easy way, however, and we witnessed yet another twist in the race for a top-two finish. It looks like it could go right to the wire.

East Anglian Daily Times: The Blues only hit the target five times from 21 shots against BoroThe Blues only hit the target five times from 21 shots against Boro (Image: Stephen Waller)

An intense clash

Of the three teams in the promotion race, Ipswich arguably had the hardest game. Middlesbrough came to Suffolk unbeaten in eight games, and they knew they’d likely need four wins from four to stand a chance of reaching the top six.

Yet Town dealt with them pretty easily in the opening stages of the game. They had the better chances in the first 15 minutes of the game, yet five minutes later, they found themselves behind.

There’ll be some frustrations with the goal. Luke Ayling had too much time to deliver the cross and Emmanuel Latte Lath was able to sneak in between the two centre-backs to divert the ball into the net. It came with their first real spell of possession.

In the aftermath, Ipswich managed to slow down the frenetic pace and bag a deserved equaliser. It must’ve been great for Massimo Luongo to score against the club where he wasn’t given a chance, even though he speaks highly of his time on Teesside.

From there, it turned into an open, end-to-end game full of half-chances. It was an edge-of-your-seat clash, one which the neutral would enjoy, but perhaps not those who wanted to see the hosts win. 

If this match took place back in November, the impressive performance would probably get the credit is deserves, but most will see it as as a chance missed - at least in the immediate aftermath. Time is the best healer, and perhaps in the coming days and weeks we'll see this as a really vital point.

East Anglian Daily Times: Vaclav Hladky's late saves helped Town earn a point at Portman RoadVaclav Hladky's late saves helped Town earn a point at Portman Road (Image: Pagepix)

The defining moment

Vaclav Hladky is an excellent goalkeeper. He’s shown that multiple times this season, but his performance against Middlesbrough might top the list.

To get the one negative out of the way, his clearance in the build-up to the opener could’ve been better, but he was put into an uncomfortable position and more than made up for it in the end.

With 10 minutes to go, Latte Lath capitalised as Luke Woolfenden misjudged the flight of a goal kick, allowing the striker to race through and set up Isaiah Jones, who forced Hladky to make a low save to his left.

Boro recycled the ball as Ayling picked out Matt Clarke, who looked destined to score with a powerful header from point-blank range, but the Town ‘keeper tipped it up and onto the bar. That save certainly earned Town the point and could play a huge part in the promotion race.

East Anglian Daily Times: Ali Al-Hamadi made his first Championship start in the 1-1 drawAli Al-Hamadi made his first Championship start in the 1-1 draw (Image: Stephen Waller)

Ali’s first start

Ali Al-Hamadi has waited patiently, quietly knocking on the door for a first start without necessarily bashing it down. He’s had some impressive cameos and scored some key goals, and with Kieffer Moore tiring, it was clear he needed to come in.

To be honest, it was a bit of a surprise not to see him in the lineup against Watford, but McKenna clearly picked Moore as the more capable striker against three dominant centre-backs. Against Middlesbrough, Al-Hamadi had space to run into and pace to burn.

There’s no doubt it was a challenge. Clarke and Rav van den Berg did well to nullify him and limit him to just two blocked shots, but his movement created openings for Ipswich and gave them something different in the final third.

It remains to be seen whether he’ll keep his place in the lineup for the final week of the season, but he’s done his chances no harm at all. Kieran McKenna was certainly impressed with him.

East Anglian Daily Times: Ipswich have a two-week break without a gameIpswich have a two-week break without a game (Image: Stephen Waller)

And now… breathe!

It’s time for a break. Town have two weeks without a game, returning to action at Hull in around a fortnight (8pm kick-off on Saturday, March 27th). Between now and then, Leicester and Leeds will both play twice.

The Foxes host West Brom next Saturday before welcoming Southampton to the King Power Stadium for their game in hand the following Tuesday. Farke’s men face two away games at Middlesbrough and QPR, which are both 8pm kick-offs separated by just five days.

We’ll have a clearer picture of what Ipswich need to do at that point, with Leeds only having one game left to play after that run. That’s at home to Southampton on the final day, and the Saints aren't necessarily out of the equation either with two games in hand.

Permutations and numbers will now come into play, so it’ll be messy and confusing. This is another weekend where nothing has been decided, but we’re not far away from getting a better idea of who’s going to get automatic promotion. The Blues will know what they need to do when they step out onto the pitch at the MKM Stadium.

They still have nine points to play for and will only be focusing on themselves. To have 89 points at this stage of the campaign is simply remarkable - the highest number ever achieved by a newly-promoted League One outfit.

In the last week, the three main contenders all played three times, winning just one of nine games between them. Leicester took three points (W1, D0, L2), Leeds took one (W0, D1, L2) and Ipswich took two (W0, D2, L1). McKenna's men were in an excellent position prior to the East Anglian derby against Norwich City, and with three games remaining, almost nothing has changed. In fact, you could argue that they're better off given that time is running out.

These matches are decided by fine margins, too. From Town's perspective, if Chaplin scores from point-blank range, if Jeremy Sarmiento doesn't hit the post, if Moore isn't incorrectly flagged for offside before taking his shot, we could be talking about an entirely different scenario.

But there's no point in looking back because their future is still in their hands. That's all that matters right now.