DANIEL AYALA scored for the third game in a row to lift Middlesbrough back into the play-off places after beating promotion rivals Bristol City at the Riverside Stadium.

The Spanish defender’s seventh of the season was headed in with 22 minutes remaining to secure a much-needed three points after the midweek disappointment at Sheffield United.

Bristol City, who are now four points adrift of the top six, had taken the lead against the run of play in the ninth minute when Milan Djuric volleyed in.

But Middlesbrough soon levelled when George Friend nodded over the line nine minutes later.

Just when it seemed Middlesbrough might not have the extra bit of magic required to hit a winner, Ayala popped up in the area to head Adama Traore’s corner in to lift them up to fifth.

The victory came at a cost. Striker Patrick Bamford had to be stretchered off and taken to hospital midway through the first half after a clash with Aden Flint.

He will be monitored in the coming days, but Britt Assombalonga could be the only available striker for the trip to Derby and possibly beyond.

Millwall’s draw with Sheffield United earlier in the day had opened the door for Middlesbrough to force their way back into the top six.

It was clear from the start that Middlesbrough wanted to make the most of it, even if they struggled to test the goalkeeper as much as they would have liked.

Yet, after Jonny Howson had dragged a low effort wide, it was Bristol City who gained the upperhand with effectively their first attack of the day.

When a ball dropped on the edge of the Middlesbrough box, Mo Besic should have done better. Instead Marlon Pack jumped higher to direct into the area where Djuric had gone in between Friend and Ayala to volley inside the far post.

Middlesbrough responded positively and soon levelled things up.

Traore’s corner into the middle of the box was perfect for Friend to arrive and jump ahead of his marker to glance a header inside the far post.

Middlesbrough kept plugging away after that and had numerous shots, with Traore’s runs and crosses the main threats of the opening period. However, goalkeeper Frank Fielding was not tested enough.

Middlesbrough played with the same sort of tempo even after Bamford’s horrendous collision on the far side of the pitch. He collapsed on the floor after a clash with Flint.

After a lengthy delay, which led to 11 minutes of added time at the end of the half, Bamford was eventually withdrawn on a stretcher and replaced by Assombalonga.

Middlesbrough saw plenty of the ball again in the second half but struggled to do anything with it. Fielding did not have saves to make, with Clayton shooting over from distance and Assombalonga heading wide the nearest they came before the hour.

Had Friend not been strong to block a low goalbound drive from Josh Brownhill with his leg then Middlesbrough would have been behind.

Brownhill then suffered further frustration at the other end when he was unable to clear Ayala’s header from Traore’s corner off the line when Middlesbrough took the lead.

There was still time for Bristol City to equalise and they almost did. Bobby Reid, though, fired over from 12 yards when he should have done better in stoppage-time. 

MIDDLESBROUGH (4-1-4-1): Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton; Traore (Cranie 90), Howson, Besic, Downing (Fabio 88); Bamford (Assombalonga 35). Subs (not used): Konstantopoulos (gk), Fry, Harrison, Baker.

BRISTOL CITY (4-4-2): Fielding; Bryan, Baker, Flint, Kelly (O’Dowda 67); Brownhill, Smith, Pack, Reid; Djuric (Pisano 46), Diedhiou (Taylor 67). Subs (not used): Steele (gk), Eliasson, Magnusson, O’Neil.