Middlesbrough 0 Aston Villa 1: Mile Jedinak header gives Villa Championship play-off advantage
Mile Jedinak scored the only goal of the game at the Riverside, his glancing header in the 15th minute enough to separate the two sides.
Middlesbrough's effort and commitment couldn't be faulted but they lacked quality in key areas, with Boro missing some big chances and Villa's resolute defending seeing them claim a first leg advantage.
Streetwise Villa managed the game well, with Tony Pulis' side short of ideas. The tie is still very much alive though ahead of Tuesday's second leg.
Pulis named an unchanged side with Britt Assombalonga preferred in attack again to Patrick Bamford, who started on the bench, with Adam Clayton again named in central midfield.
There was an emotional standing ovation before kick-off when former Boro goalkeeping coach Leo Percovich took to the pitch.
Tragedy struck shortly before Christmas last year when the Percovich family were involved in a car accident in Brazil which claimed the lives of Leo’s two young daughters.
Percovich held aloft a Boro flag, and then a banner saying 'Thank you, always together' after Boro fans had sent messages of support following the tragedy.
With a lively atmosphere in the stands, it was Boro that started brightly, Adama Traore causing problems against his old club with his rapid pace.
It wasn't long before the Villains had doubled up - sometimes tripled up - on the dangerman.
Boro remained positive and on the front foot, with the home fans doing their bit from the stands.
Despite the determined start, it was Villa that took the lead just 15 minutes in.
A Jack Grealish corner from the right was glanced in by Jedinak, the midfielder having got clear from Ryan Shotton.
It was a good header but an unchallenged one and it left Pulis furious in the technical area.
The nerves were getting to Boro after going behind, with Villa pressing them and looking the more likely to add to their tally.
Boro didn't defend set pieces with any confidence and the early zip having gone from their play. Slowly, Pulis' side eaked their way back into the game.
Assombalonga then had three excellent openings within the space of seven minutes, and he squandered them all.
Boro enjoyed their best chance on the half hour mark, Howson with a sublime pass forward to Assombalonga, he chested the ball down but could only fire his effort over under pressure.
It almost proved costly, Snodgrass heading over the crossbar from eight yards up the other end, unmarked he should have done far better.
Assombalonga then fired into the sidenetting, Howson again teeing him up with a clever pass. It wasn't long before chance number three came along.
Traore twisted and turned to create enough space on the left flank to curl in an inviting cross, Assombalonga got down low to get his head on it but Johnstone did enough to keep it out.
Villa, who possessed more quality, looked a threat every time they broke forward and they went within a whisker of a second just before half-time.
Grealish laid the ball off to Snodgrass, who curled an effort towards the left-hand corner of the net only for Randolph to claw the ball on to the post.
A superb save as Boro, who started and finished the half strongly, went in at the break trailing 1-0.
It was tight, tense, enthralling.
The opening stages of the second half was a competitive and tight affair, with neither side threatening the other's goal, Assombalonga seeing an effort drift harmlessly wide of the left-hand post.
Boro were dealt a blow 64 minutes in, Ayala - the pick of the Boro defenders - forced off through injury, Fabio on as a replacement with Shotton moving into the middle.
Villa, who had moved Hutton to right-back to try and deal with Traore, were happy to remain patient and look to pick Boro off on the break.
Their best second half effort coming via Grabban, whose low effort - after being played in brilliantly by Grealish - was comfortably saved by Randolph in the Boro goal.
Too often, Boro crosses were comfortable to Johnstone to come and gather under little pressure.
Pulis made his second change from the subs bench with 15 minutes to go, Bamford on for Assombalonga who had missed a trio of good chances.
Grealish continued to pull the strings for Villa, the attacking midfielder a constant thorn in the Boro side.
Boro continued to press but Villa were proving a tough nut to crack defensively, expertly marshalled by John Terry at the heart of their defence.
Johnstone alert to tip a Fabio header, at the back post, behind. Fabio was again involved moments later, his volley punched clear by the Villa stopper before Besic shot wide.
Friend then blazed a volley high over the crossbar as the game entered the final stages, with Boro desperately looking for an equaliser but not doing much to hurt Johnstone's goal.
Downing curled an effort well wide in additional time at the Riverside, while Fabio saw his effort deflected past the post with Villa holding on to their potentially crucial 1-0 lead.
The second leg is at Villa Park on Tuesday night.
FT: Middlesbrough 0 Aston Villa 1
Boro (4-1-4-1): Randolph; Shotton, Ayala (Fabio, 64), Gibson, Friend; Clayton; Traore, Besic, Howson, Downing; Assombalonga (Bamford, 76)
Subs Not Used: Konstantopoulos (gk), Fry, Cranie, Leadbitter, Harrison.
Booked: Friend (45+1), Gibson (49),
Villa (4-2-3-1): Johnstone; Elmohamady (Whelan, 88), Chester, Terry, Hutton; Jedinak, Hourihane; Snodgrass, Grealish, Adomah (Kodjia, 71) Grabban (Bjarnason, 81).
Subs Not Used: Bunn (gk), Samba, Onomah, Hogan.
Booked: Hourihane (13), Snodgrass (75)
Goals: Jedinak (15)
Referee: Robert Madley.