PHOTOS: Burnley FC 1, Ipswich Town 2

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SATURDAY was the first time at least one player who started the play-off final win at Wembley two years ago hadn’t started for the Clarets, 86 games on.

And, like memories of that incredible day, optimism of a repeat is fading fast.

This latest setback as about as far removed from that heady afternoon as possible, not only because of the different personnel.

Burnley, for a prolonged period now, have been devoid of the energy they had become renowned for, and again struggled to get anywhere near the high tempo football they are capable of against Paul Jewell’s side.

And again, they showed a soft underbelly that has been a problem going back to before the promotion season. That combination is seriously threatening to derail the Clarets’ play-off ambitions.

Boss Eddie Howe had looked to start the game with real attacking intent, but again the build-up was laboured, allowing Ipswich time to get organised and into their shape.

Howe admitted before the game that a failure to get into a good rhythm was a frustration: “I don’t know why that is, we always set out to start the game well.”

But after the two-week international break, the problem remains.

In those circumstances you need invention and vision, but while Dean Marney – skipper in the absence of Clarke Carlisle – and Marvin Bartley’s graft could not be faulted, they are not the type of midfielders who can unlock defences.

Add Chris Eagles struggling to find his best form, almost trying too hard at times, and Ross Wallace being hauled off before half-time, before he was sent off after a series of run-ins with referee Trevor Kettle, the Clarets lacked that game changer.

Howe had wanted his side to be more positive and create more chances, and to that end, he essentially fielded four forwards with Nathan Delfouneso – in the role he filled to good effect for England Under 21s last Monday – on the left, Eagles on the right, and Walllace playing off Jay Rodriguez.

However, Ipswich keeper Arran Lee-Barrett came off having not been forced into a save of note.

At the other end, in Ipswich’s rare incursions into Burnley’s final third, they took advantage of uncertain defending to score two goals which didn’t make for pleasant viewing.

The first, after 16 minutes, saw Gareth McAuley win a far post header from Jimmy Bullard’s corner too comfortably, and Connor Wickham beat Brian Easton to the knockdown to hand David Norris the task of drilling home the opener.

Eight minutes later, Norris dummied a pass for Jason Scotland and took the return ball before crossing for Wickham, who celebrated his 18th birthday on Thursday by heading down and over Lee Grant, with questions asked of the keeper’s positioning and reactions. That sucked the life out of Burnley, as Kettle took over as the star of the show.

After failing to hand out bookings for the three worst challenges of the game, committed by Bartley, Wickham and Damien Delaney, he handed out five soft yellow cards before the break, and two in the second period, while baffling both sets of players with his decisions.

The Clarets were improved in the second half, and should have had a penalty when Chris Iwelumo was shoved over by Mark Kennedy as he looked to get on the end of Easton’s cross.

Burnley gave themselves a lifeline 20 minutes from time, when Rodriguez collected Marney’s pass, took a touch and lashed home inside the post from 25 yards for his 13th of the season and ninth since the turn of the year.

But the Clarets couldn’t summon up the rip-roaring finale they wanted, as they failed to add to their tally of 24 points from losing positions so far this season – a Championship high.

Ipswich had won only two of their last eight matches, and managed only one away victory this season against a top-half side, but, like Bristol City, were a side embroiled in neither the play-off scramble or relegation scrap, and played with an according lack of pressure.

Burnley, on the other hand, are playing without confidence at present, at either end of the pitch.

They won five in six games to put themselves slap bang in the race for automatic promotion, never mind the play-offs, but one point from 12 since the win at Hull has been a severe disappointment.

This was a second-successive defeat – the first time that has happened since relegation from the Premier League was confirmed after Liverpool’s win at Turf Moor 12 months ago.

That loss ended the dreams of thousands of Burnley fans, and while dreams of returning to the top flight remain, Howe’s men will have to put together a remarkable run of results in the remaining eight games if they are to keep their hopes alive.

They remain three points from a play-off place, but with Reading now occupying sixth place, the Clarets no longer have a game in hand on their rivals.

Five of those last eight games are against sides in the top half of the table, with three against top five clubs, and, while Burnley have tended to perform better against the better sides, it is a tough ask to achieve their minimum aim for the season – a play-off place.