Carlisle United 0 Lincoln City 1: You could, perhaps, call it a magic hand - the mitt that struck the ball in the Lincoln box in the 73rd minute but did not, ref Rob Lewis reckoned after a change of heart, belong to a visiting player.

That penalty-that-wasn't was Carlisle's best chance of a way back in this tough, horrible game. It was taken away almost as soon as it was given and, on the basis that the culprit appeared to be Mark Ellis rather than a Lincoln defender, one can at least say Lewis got that call right.

It incensed United, naturally, that he also thought he had it right when pointing to the spot. Lewis eventually indicated the other way after consulting his assistant, pursued by jostling players, and the agitation was still being felt after most people had left Brunton Park on this cold Easter Monday.

That frustrating little episode summed up a maddening day, and there will now be those who feel Yahya Kirdi has more chance of a boardroom invitation this month than the play-offs being reached after all.

The gap being five points, with five games to go, United's margin for error is now almost nil. Even Keith Curle, determined to remain optimistic, conceded that their minimum needs are four wins and a draw, without the top seven drifting away for good.

The Blues manager is surely right, and while that means the equation is easier than ever to grasp, it also piles a season's worth of pressure onto next weekend's trip to Swindon.

Their predicament became clear after a turbulent few days. First, Kirdi, the "potential overseas investor" brought the "billionaire" saga of 2015-17 back onto the agenda with some colourful and controversial views, including the suggestion a "magic hand" inside United never wanted his money in the first place.

Then, in the present day, Curle's team smuggled a 1-0 win out of Cheltenham to tease us with a little fresh belief - only to come off worst three days later against a hustling, annoying but also effective Lincoln team, who could yet make two Wembley trips this spring (they are Checkatrade Trophy finalists, as well as sixth in League Two).

Amid the clamour against Lewis - Curle chose his own words carefully about a generally inept refereeing display - United's manager also conceded that Lincoln edged things in terms of ball-retention in the final third, and also with the canniest moment of the game.

That just happened to coincide with Carlisle's worst. When the Imps' training-ground free-kick was sent forward by Neal Eardley to Matt Green, two minutes from half-time, the Blues did not so much switch off as disconnect the mains. By the time their lights came back on, Green was shooting past Jack Bonham, and that was all Lincoln needed.

From there, United did not threaten Danny Cowley's team enough. Richie Bennett sliced their best chance wide, cursing a bobble, yet Carlisle also played too easily into Lincoln's hands, with long balls that needed much more variety to lift the Blues from the average.

Winter left a late foot in the challenge with the cold wind that was whipping around before kick-off. Curle brought Hallam Hope and Ashley Nadesan back in, after their match-turning exploits at Cheltenham, while Friday's "diamond" formation was also put back in the cupboard, in favour of regular 4-4-2.

Carlisle looked for their front foot, back on home turf, and against a side gunning for back-to-back promotions it resulted in a frantic start. Lincoln looked to move the ball sharply around, and also utilise the height and girth of big striker Matt Rhead, and on two minutes, his strength in the box led to a chance for the arriving Lee Frecklington.

His first-time finish was smartly parried by Bonham, and Luke Joyce shovelled the rebound behind for a corner.

Already United knew they were in a game and, after a couple of set-pieces, Lincoln came again with a corner, which was sidefooted wide by Scott Wharton in space.

This was not, though, the prevailing pattern, since United lifted their tempo. Pressing aggressively, often deep in the Imps' half, they fashioned a series of deliveries in the hope that persistence might make Cowley's men crack. One corner, worked to Gary Liddle, was nodded straight at keeper Ryan Allsop by Clint Hill.

A few contentious free-kicks went either way, the Cowleys regular companions to the fourth official, while Green warmed Bonham's palms from 20 yards. Later, Elliott Whitehouse skewed a decent chance wide, but either side of this were more bursts of Carlisle attacking.

These saw Devitt have a shot saved after a short corner, Nadesan have a couple of his own blocked, Tom Parkes flash a header wide and Bennett send another off-target.

At the other end, Parkes won a couple of heavyweight tussles with Rhead, but the big No9 also got his share, Lewis struggling to pinpoint the aggressor and the victim at times. Hill was solid in his challenges and blocks, but Lincoln's goal appeared a real malfunction.

Having been allowed a free run onto Eardley's ball forward, Green made no mistake, and suddenly the half was ending in the wrong places for Carlisle, with Parkes booked for a foul on Rhead, Hill stepping in as Lincoln players gathered around Lewis, Parkes being booked, and United's fans giving the prone Rhead the benefit of their views.

This was now a bigger challenge than was ideal against opponents not inclined to give them an inch. By the hour mark, in fact, Carlisle were fortunate not to be two down, Rhead heading into the turf after Eardley had been fed to cross by Green.

It was in keeping with the edgy game that Bonham's kicking was also hasty at times, and there had been little clarity for Carlisle beyond that one inviting chance, engineered by Bennett but which the striker could not finish cleanly.

Curle sent on Danny Grainger and Jamal Campbell-Ryce in search of new ideas, but even when the hoped-for opening seemed to have arrived, it was quickly snatched away. Grainger placed the ball on the spot when Lewis called handball, but never got to take it.

None of the officials appeared to spot some of the angrier exchanges between players as the decision was successfully contested, while the outcome did nothing for Cumbrian moods.

United still had time to come again, but real openings were scarce. Corners came and went, Campbell-Ryce tried to probe down the left and Devitt whipped one wide from 18 yards, but Carlisle lacked the poise to make things happen.

Lincoln, it became obvious, are not the sort of opponent who can easily be beaten by force. Carlisle's efforts did not come with enough invention, and there was a depressing predictability about the visitors' successful attempts to eat up time towards the end.

The final act - a second yellow card for Mike Jones, for grabbing Harry Anderson - simply rubbed the Blues' noses in it, and for all their complaints, at Lincoln and the officials, it was the away side who won ugly. At this stage, that counts more than anything, especially when the outcome is a five-point gap that will now take sorcery to make disappear.

United: Bonham, Liddle, Parkes (Grainger 63), Hill, Ellis, Jones, Joyce (Campbell-Ryce 63), Devitt, Hope (Stockton 77), Nadesan, Bennett. Not used: Gray, Brown, Lambe, Twardek

Booked: Parkes, Devitt, Jones. Sent off: Jones

Lincoln City: Allsop, Eardley, Habergham, Bostwick, Wharton, Whitehouse (Waterfall 80), Frecklington, Woodyard, Rowe (Anderson 65), Green, Rhead (Palmer 58). Not used: Farman, Pett, Williams, Wilson.

Goal: Green 43

Booked: Green

Ref: Rob Lewis

Crowd: 5,058 (618 Lincoln fans)