Middlesbrough cemented their Championship top-six spot with Saturday’s 3-1 win over lowly Barnsley, writes Joe Nicholson.
Tony Pulis’s side have now won four of their last five games, a run which has seen the Teessiders move three points clear of seventh-placed Bristol City with nine games left.
And it was almost the perfect afternoon for Boro who found themselves two up inside 17 minutes courtesy of Daniel Ayala and Adama Traore, before Patrick Bamford added his eighth goal in five games after the interval.
A rare error from keeper Darren Randolph allowed Kieffer Moore to pull one back for the Tykes in the 58th minute, though, and the final few minutes were a nervy affair for Tony Pulis’s men.
Even so, boss Pulis was keen to focus on the positives, saying: “First half, we did very well, passed it well, played through the pitch and put lots of crosses in. The one disappointment was that we never scored more goals.
“The third goal should have truthfully killed it, but we took our foot off the pedal and that’s one of the things we’ve been talking about. You can’t do that at any level.
“You’ve got to make sure you keep your foot on the pedal. It’s been a tough week, three really tough games and we’ve got the points we want and need, so I can’t be too harsh on them.”
Ayala, up from the back, opened the scoring with just 50 seconds on the clock.
The Spaniard was unmarked at the far post to stab home Ryan Shotton’s cross, after the latter’s long throw-in had initially been cleared.
The result rarely looked in doubt after that, as Boro doubled their lead through Traore when the speedy winger cut in from the right before unleashing a powerful strike into the far corner.
Boro outfought and outran their opponents throughout a one-sided first half, with Muhamed Besic relentless in midfield.
The Bosnian broke up play and continuously drove his side forward with his lung-bursting runs. “Besic gives us another dimension,” Pulis later admitted.
When Bamford made it 3-0 in the 53rd minute, after Stewart Downing’s corner bounced into the net off the striker’s knee, it looked like a question of how many.
Yet, Barnsley reduced the deficit when Gary Gardner’s shot was spilled by Randolph and Moore nodded home.
That set up a nervy finish, and Moore almost sparked an unlikely comeback when he headed against the post ten minutes from time.
Middlesbrough: Randolph, Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend, Howson, Clayton, Besic (Baker 66), Traore, Bamford (Assombalonga 90), Downing (Cranie 83). Subs not used: Konstantopoulos, Fry, Johnson, Harrison. Goals: Ayala 1, Traore 18, Bamford 53.
Barnsley: Townsend, Cavare, Jackson, Lindsay, Pinillos, Joe Williams (Mallan 75), Hedges (Thiam 46), Knasmullner (Isgrove 61), Gardner, McBurnie, Moore. Subs not used: Davies, Moncur, Yiadom, Pearson. Booked: Gardner. Goal: Moore 58.
Att: 24,917. Ref: Andy Davies (Hampshire).