ALEN BOKSIC started his first game since Boxing Day and inspired Middlesbrough to a victory which further eases their relegation fears.

The Croatian, pushing for a place in his country's World Cup squad, slotted his seventh goal of the season - and first for over two-and-a-half months - in the 27th minute of this re-arranged clash at the Riverside Stadium.

And the poacher turned provider 13 minutes from time as Slovakia striker Szilard Nemeth came in from the cold to seal a crucial win.

Boro boss Steve McClaren stunned the home crowd when he withdrew Benito Carbone in favour of Nemeth in the 70th minute.

The decision drew boos from the fans but McClaren was vindicated as Boksic found Nemeth in the clear and the Terry Venables-Bryan Robson signing from Inter Bratislava buried a left-foot drive just inside the near post.

It was a relief for Boro after striker Steve Marlet had levelled in the 56th minute.

Marlet, Fulham's £11.5m record signing from Lyon, headed in at the far post after former Newcastle defender Alain Goma had flicked on Steed Malbranque's left-wing corner.

But Nemeth, who has struggled to adjust to the rigours of the English game since arriving last summer, conjured his fourth goal of the season.

Boro are now unbeaten in their last eight games in all competitions, and have suffered only one defeat in 11 since Fulham beat them by the same scoreline at Craven Cottage on January 12.

But, more importantly for McClaren, his side have a six-point cushion between themselves and the bottom three, having jumped five places to 11th and leap-frogged rivals Sunderland in the process on goal difference.

After so many prosaic Premiership games here this season, the entertainment value was high, and McClaren admitted: "It's a massive three points for us and we need to build on this. We might not be playing the type of attractive football Fulham play but, by God, the players are showing guts and character and I can't fault them.''

Boro, however, made the most of a lucky break only three minutes before Nemeth's clincher when referee Dermot Gallagher pulled play back for a free-kick after striker Barry Hayles, who was through on goal, had been brought down by Boro left-back Franck Queudrue.

To add insult to injury, Queudrue - who had already been booked - escaped further punishment.

Fulham boss Jean Tigana said: "To me that was a big mistake. The referee stopped the game to talk to the player.''

Boksic hadn't featured in Boro's starting line-up since the 3-0 festive defeat at Newcastle, when he stormed straight down the tunnel after being substituted late in the game.

A propensity to break down with injuries and illness has led some to query his commitment to Boro.

But it is a charge he has furiously refuted and McClaren revealed on the eve of this game that his star striker has found "peace of mind'' at the Riverside, nearly two years after his £2.5m arrival from Lazio.

The loan signing of Carbone from Bradford has helped to re-invigorate Boksic, and the Italian striker was in tandem last night after being cup-tied for Saturday's victory here over Blackburn.

Jonathan Greening returned in midfield following a one-match ban and was presented with Boro's first chance in the fourth minute when Boksic found the former Manchester United player inside the 18-yard box on the right.

But he was quickly closed down and his half-hit shot skewed wide of the near post.

Boro were close to a breakthrough in the 24th minute when Queudrue met Carbone's right-wing corner with a towering header which flew just wide.

But with Carbone prompting from deep positions, there was always the promise of something special from the former Inter Milan man, and he duly delivered three minutes later when he swivelled sweetly to release Boksic.

There was a suspicion of offside but no sign of a flag and, after checking to make sure himself, Boksic broke clear on the left to cut in and lift a deft finish over the sprawling Edwin van der Sar.

Carbone could have opened his Boro account on the stroke of half-time when he was fed by Greening on the left, but he got underneath the ball and his shot sailed over.

But Boro escaped in stoppage-time when Ugo Ehiogu was caught napping and Marlet nipped in to race clear and round keeper Mark Schwarzer before firing wide.

Fulham checked Boro's momentum with Marlet's strike and he almost doubled the pain in the 65th minute.

Malbranque worked the ball inside and Marlet made room for a raking drive from the edge of the area which was turned aside spectacularly by Schwarzer.

Having already brought on Hartlepool-born teenager David Murphy in place of Robbie Mustoe to facilitate a switch to wing-backs, McClaren opted to utilise his full complement of substitutes, with Nemeth taking over from Carbone and Dean Windass replacing Noel Whelan.

But it was centre-back Ugo Ehiogu, scorer of the goal that beat Blackburn, who almost restored Boro's lead when he headed against the bar from Greening's right-wing corner.

Read more about the Boro here.