Boro Blunt Chelsea's Charge (Sky Sports)
Middlesbrough 1 Chelsea 1
Chelsea missed out on the chance of tasting life at the top of the Premiership after their title charge was held back by a gutsy Middlesbrough at the Riverside.
Skipper-for-the-day John Terry marked his return to Chelsea's starting line-up with a 42nd-minute equaliser from a Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink corner.
Boro's loan ranger Geremi had dented the Blues' hopes of scaling new heights with a superb 32nd-minute free-kick and Boro could easily have took three valuable points.
Both sides, however, will reflect on the gilt-edged chances they squandered in an entertaining contest on a sticky pitch which could have gone either way.
Boro keeper Mark Schwarzer denied both Gianfranco Zola and Frank Lampard with fine saves on an afternoon when Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink left his shooting boots in the dressing room.
But opposite number Carlo Cudicini did well to claim a powerful header from substitute Noel Whelan and was grateful to see Massimo Maccarone miss a golden opportunity to make it 2-0 when it looked simpler to score.
In the end, both sides will feel relatively satisfied with a point, although they could be forgiven for considering what might have been as they reflect upon a very open game.
Chelsea arrived at the Riverside unbeaten in 10 games and determined to take advantage of Arsenal's inactivity, and they signaled their intentions to attack from the off.
With Lampard prospering in a tight midfield battle and Zola showing flashes of the magic which has made him a fixture in the side this season, it seemed only a matter of time before the visitors opened the scoring.
Three times Hasselbaink was presented with more than half-chances, although the only one of the three he got on target lacked the power to trouble Schwarzer.
Indeed, despite the fact the Londoners created the better chances in the opening half-hour, it was Cudicini who was the busier keeper, saving a volley from Gareth Southgate and then getting down well to keep out Szilard Nemeth's skidding 14th-minute drive.
And it was the Teessiders who took the lead with 32 minutes gone after Emmanuel Petit tripped Jonathan Greening just outside the penalty area after a quick free-kick caught the Blues sleeping.
Frank Queudrue stepped over the ball, but on-loan Real Madrid defender Geremi followed in his wake to curl an unstoppable shot past Cudicini.
Zola should have leveled within seconds when his trickery put him in on Schwarzer, but the Italian lost his shoot-out with the big Australian, who four minutes later pulled off an even better stop from the fast-arriving Lampard.
However, Boro should by then have been two ahead after Nemeth broke
down the right and crossed for record signing Maccarone, who passed up
the chance to end a barren run stretching back to September 28 when he
mis-kicked with the goal at
The miss proved costly three minutes before the break when the home defence failed to deal with a Hasselbaink corner and Terry gleefully stabbed the ball home at the far post to restore parity.
Maccarone made up for his misery at one end with a goal-line save from Petit's header in first-half injury time to leave the game nicely in the melting pot.
The Italian's afternoon ended at the break when he was replaced by Whelan, but his team-mates continued to fight for all three points as the game became increasingly open.
Jesper Gronkjaer was enjoying acres of space down the Chelsea right but wastefully blasted across goal after racing away from Queudrue on 49 minutes, but Nemeth served warning of his side's continuing threat when he got his head to a Geremi cross but could not direct the ball on target.
Queudrue had to be at his best to dispossess danger man Zola after William Gallas had broken out of defence 18 minutes from time, and his side almost reaped an immediate benefit when Geremi crossed from the right for Whelan to power a header towards goal but into Cudicini's arms.
The points were there for the taking as the game entered its final stages, but apart from another Schwarzer save from a 75th-minute Lampard strike, neither side ever really threatened to snatch it at the death.
That said, there was still enough time for the mercurial Zola to
fashion a chance for himself in the final minute of normal time,
although his shot never really troubled the Boro keeper.