ANOTHER Capital One Cup game against lower-league opposition, another comfortable win. If Middlesbrough keep getting draws like their first two this season, they’ll be heading to Wembley in March.
At some stage their luck will have to run out, but having been handed an inviting passage into the third round of the League Cup, it is to the Teessiders’ credit they have not looked a gift horse in the mouth.
Tonight’s 3-1 victory over League One Preston might not have been quite as comprehensive as their first-round success at Oldham, but after a featureless first half, Boro successfully turned on the style to settle things after the interval.
Lee Tomlin’s brace, which featured an excellent direct free-kick and a precise finish after an eye-catching dribble, sandwiched Tom Clarke’s own goal to ensure Aitor Karanka’s side’s progress.
There was a brief wobble when Teessider James Hugill levelled things for Preston, but Boro’s burst of three second-half goals in the space of 15 minutes ultimately proved decisive.
Tomlin was the stand-out performer during that spell, although Albert Adomah and Adam Clayton also upped their games noticeably in the second half to ensure Boro avoided a cup upset for the second round in succession.
As had been the case at Oldham, Karanka changed more than half his side in an attempt to give some of his fringe players a chance to impress. But just as was the case two weeks earlier, Boro’s starting line-up still contained more than enough quality to see off a team from League One.
The likes of Clayton, Tomlin and Daniel Ayala were present to guarantee an experienced spine, and while teenage striker Bradley Fewster returned to the starting line-up after making his senior debut at Oldham, it would have been disingenuous to label tonight’s side as second string.
Not that Boro’s superior status was apparent during a sterile opening spell though. It was 51 minutes before the Teessiders recorded a shot on target - and that was the free-kick from Tomlin that was good enough to break the deadlock.
There was a surprising lack of urgency to the whole of Boro’s first-half play, with passes going astray and no one displaying much of a willingness to break beyond the Preston defence.
Clayton produced a couple of nice touches at the heart of midfield, but Dean Whitehead refused to stray from his position just in front of the back four and Adomah was a bystander in a somewhat unusual position on the left-hand side.
Fewster found himself isolated for long spells, and as was the case at Oldham, the youngster was muscled off the ball far too easily. Karanka should be commended for giving youth a chance, but the 18-year-old Teessider does not yet look ready for the rigours of the senior game.
At least he threatened to go close in the tenth minute, and while his long-range shot was ultimately deflected wide, it proved just about the best opportunity Boro created before the break.
Emilio Nsue, who was eventually forced off through injury, cut in from the right flank to drag a weak shot wide of the target, but a Preston side featuring seven changes from the team that beat Oldham at the weekend initially remained unruffled.
Indeed it was the visitors who should really have been ahead at the break, with Boro grateful for a dreadful touch from Will Hayhurst that turned a glorious goalscoring opportunity into a simple gather for Dimi Konstantopoulos.
With James Husband out of position, Hayhurst had the freedom of the penalty area as he watched Scott Laird cross from the left, but in attempting to trap the ball, he merely stabbed it tamely towards a grateful Boro goalkeeper.
Konstantopoulos was cheered every time he caught the ball – a reflection of the Riverside crowd’s desire to see him starting in the league ahead of Tomas Mejias – but the home fans finally had a genuine reason to get to their feet six minutes after the interval.
Tomlin had barely been involved to that stage, but given an opportunity to show off his set-piece prowess 22 yards out, the forward caressed a fantastic strike into the net.
The goal sparked the game into life, and after 50 minutes of absolutely nothing happening, there was suddenly a spell of four goals in the space of quarter-of-an-hour.
Preston had been behind for less than three minutes when they equalised, with Boro’s vulnerability from aerial deliveries rearing its head once again.
Hayhurst crossed from the left, and after Jack King flicked the ball on, Hugill stooped to head home at the back post. Hugill, a boyhood Middlesbrough fan, played for Seaham Red Star, Consett, Whitby Town and Marske United before entering the professional game, so it is safe to say tonight’s goal would have meant a lot to him.
Its significance was diminished by the next attack of the game though, with Boro reclaiming the lead thanks to some excellent work from Adomah, who spent the second half on the right.
The winger outpaced Ben Davies to deliver a driven cross from close to the touchline, and with Fewster racing to the front post, Clarke could only turn the ball into his own net.
With the game suddenly see-sawing from one end to the other, Clarke wasted a great opportunity to claim a second Preston equaliser when he headed over from the edge of the six-yard box moments later, and the importance of the miss was accentuated when Tomlin effectively put the game beyond doubt in the 66th minute.
Displaying the kind of pace and dribbling ability that made Boro so determined to sign him in January, the former Peterborough attacker glided past two opponents before slotting home a precise finish from the edge of the area.