Full-time: Middlesbrough 3 Birmingham City 1

A DRAMATIC ending at the Riverside Stadium last night has left Middlesbrough fans wondering if the improbable is still possible.

After securing a two-goal advantage inside 85 first half seconds courtesy of Danny Graham and Jacob Butterfield's goals, Boro looked well on course for a third win in a row for the first time since December.

Loading article content

But a 40-yard screamer from young Welsh midfielder Emyr Huws raised the possibility of a Birmingham City comeback eight minutes before the break. The excitement was only just starting.

After a second half in which Middlesbrough could have had numerous more goals, referee Carl Boyeson then issued two red cards in the final ten minutes. Both Kenneth Omeruo and Ben Gibson were dismissed for the home side with two bookable offences.

And yet, with Birmingham pushing on in search of an equaliser, a long ball dropped Lee Tomlin's way. He brushed off the attentions of his marker before dispatching the composed finish in the last minute.

That sealed the points for Middlesbrough, who now head for second placed Burnley on Saturday with the gap to the play-off places down to eight points with five matches remaining.

Given the celebrations and the noise at the Riverside in the closing stages and after the final whistle, there was a sense that few on Teesside have given up completely on a top six finish just yet.

Birmingham might still have lingering fears of relegation hanging over them, but away from home they presented a real threat to a Middlesbrough side rejuvenated in recent weeks.

Eight of the Blues' nine wins on their travels this season – more than any other side outside the top six – had arrived in their previous 14 games and Saturday's 3-1 win at Doncaster maintained rising confidence.

And they started strongly. When the ball fell to 20-year-old Huws on the edge of the box, he darted wide beyond the red shirts and crossed towards Federico Macheda. But the imposing figure of Omeruo was on hand to clear.

The danger did not stay away for too long and when Paul Caddis picked out Lee Novak with a clever pass down the left, the forward tucked away a neat finish beneath Dimi Konstantopoulos only for referee Boyeson to blow for offside.

But Middlesbrough have been effective at home, even if they have not won as many matches as they would have liked to keep them in the play-off hunt.

Back-to-back wins over Brighton and Derby County helped erase some of the frustration being felt from a worrying run which had seen them drop out of contention for a top six spot.

The Northern Echo:

FINISHING THE NIGHT OFF IN STYLE: Lee Tomlin strikes to secure the 3-1 victory

The improved form meant Aitor Karanka was happy to stick with the side which overcame Steve McClaren's Rams, with the exception of recalling Butterfield behind lone striker Graham instead of playing January buy Tomlin.

Butterfield was heavily involved in a lovely move which almost led to the opening goal. When Albert Adomah and Luke Williams combined down the right, a pass was played inside to Butterfield.

The former Norwich man sucked a couple of bright yellow shirts towards him, picked out Nathaniel Chalobah and he curled a lovely chip towards goal which brought a one-handed save from goalkeeper Darren Randolph.

From the corner Randolph was nowhere near to a Gibson header and was indebted to Novak, who was on his near post to head off the line when the opener looked a certainty.

Novak was a presence at both ends. Just moments after George Friend had to be withdrawn from left-back through injury, Birmingham created another decent chance from down that flank.

While the chance was not the fault of makeshift full-back Gibson, Andrew Shinnie's delivery in to the area was cleverly flicked towards goal by Novak and the effort trickled to safety.

There was more space down that side moments later too. This time Chris Burke, played in by Shinnie, lifted a shot over Konstantopoulos and, just when it seemed he would score, Omeruo was on hand to clear over the bar with his head.

Once Shinnie had gone close once more from the same flank, Middlesbrough broke and forced the corner from which they earned the advantage.

Leadbitter's delivery to the penalty spot was headed down towards the six-yard box by Woodgate and Graham took a touch, turned and then flicked a finish inside Randolph's near post.

Less than two minutes later the lead had doubled. This time there was a bit of quality about the way it came about.

The Northern Echo:

FINISHING THE NIGHT OFF IN STYLE: Lee Tomlin strikes to secure the 3-1 victory

With Birmingham still coming to terms with conceding, Jozsef Varga's quick thinking deep inside the visitors' half saw him take a throw. Butterfield, with nobody around him, swivelled and struck a sweet half volley high into the centre of Randolph's net.

Suddenly, having survived a couple of scares, Middlesbrough heading for the break with a two-goal cushion only for Huws to pull one back when he had absolutely no right to.

With acres of space in front of him, the Manchester City youngster unleashed an unstoppable left foot strike from fully 40 yards which gathered pace en route before nestling inside Konstantopoulos' far corner.

Having survived any further Birmingham attacks in the remaining minutes of the first half, which saw the lively Novak replaced through injury, Middlesbrough started the second half the brighter.

Home fans started to lift from their seats in anticipation of a third goal too when Adomah's pace created an opportunity for Graham. The Sunderland striker, however, could only lift his chip over Randolph on to the roof of the net.

Graham was regularly man-handled by either Tom Thorpe or his defensive side-kick Paul Robinson, which often created space for the runners towards the Birmingham box. Butterfield, particularly, found some nice areas without testing Randolph.

The former Barnsley man has been in and out of the Middlesbrough side this season, but he linked up well with Graham to justify his inclusion.

It was that combination which almost led to a third for Middlesbrough. Butterfield's splitting pass was perfect for Graham, but the latter's side-foot shot was stopped by Randolph.

There was also a bouncing drive from substitute Emmanuel Ledesma, a replacement for Williams, which dropped wide and then he was denied by Randolph after more positive work from Butterfield before his withdrawal.

Birmingham's goal led a charmed life at times, typically when Tomlin's determination led to a shot which hit the post and Randolph before dropping to safety, before Omeruo was shown a second yellow card for blocking Jordan Ibe.

There was even more drama when Gibson, who picked up a yellow in the build up to Omeruo dismissal, was then naively booked for a pull on Nikola Zigic to breathe new life in to Birmingham.

Yet with nine-men Tomlin brushed off the defender and powered low beyond Randolph to seal the points after an enthralling night at the Riverside.