MIDDLESBROUGH’S push for the Premier League might have been given the lift it needed at just the right time, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Superman leading them out of a potentially damaging stutter.

After winning just one of their previous five matches and the failure to overcome a rival for a play-off spot in midweek at Sheffield United, it was imperative Boro found a way to land three points against Bristol City. And they did.

At times, Middlesbrough might have struggled to pose a serious threat to Frank Fielding’s goal, despite enjoying plenty of possession. But what mattered was they found a way to defeat a major rival for a top-six spot.

Two goals were scored by defenders.

Daniel Ayala was at it again for the third game in a row, heading in the winner with 22 minutes remaining, building on George Friend’s own header in the 18th minute that had cancelled out Milan Djuric’s volley nine minutes earlier.

Those meant Middlesbrough had capitalised on Millwall’s draw at Bramall Lane earlier in the day to climb up to fifth, changing the mood ahead of two critical fixtures against seventh-placed Derby County and the sixth-placed Lions, before ending the campaign at Ipswich.

Who would bet against Ayala popping up with more? He looks a threat every time he goes forward, scoring goals with his feet and head to complement his excellent performances at the opposite end to delight manager Tony Pulis.

Scoring for the third game in a row has made him Middlesbrough’s third leading scorer this season and he is only three behind Patrick Bamford, despite spending the majority of matches at the opposite end to the men expected to score the goals. He has certainly got his team-mates talking.

“He has a little glimmer in his eyes on a morning when he comes into training, he struts around like he’s Cristiano Ronaldo, but we will let him for now,” said midfielder Adam Clayton. “He’s CR7 at the minute around the place!

“But he is great for us in both boxes, he is a man mountain. As long as he keeps scoring we are happy. He is a powerhouse in both areas, he really is.

“He can head a ball and has found his touch to score too. He has seven, he can take the mick out of me for not scoring, I don’t think I can say anything to him the way he is going. As long as he scores I am happy, I don’t care. If he can get 20 then fine.”

If having Ronaldo banging them in wasn’t enough, Middlesbrough suddenly had Superman helping out when it mattered too. When Friend moved in the area to glance Adama Traore’s corner inside the far post, he celebrated by running towards the South Stand and pretended to have glasses on before diving in the air and to the ground.

Apparently his little routine was for the benefit of Howard Archer, the chef at the club’s Rockliffe Park training complex, who Friend always says looks like Clark Kent. Middlesbrough will take goals from anywhere at this stage of the campaign!

Pulis said: “Daniel has scored again, and now George Friend is getting in on the act by scoring too … hopefully we can keep it going.”

Pulis will not be looking for his players to develop superpowers in the final three matches of the campaign, just turn in the sort of standard in performance required to get them over the line.

Once a top-six berth has been achieved it will then be a case of finishing off the job at Wembley to get the club back in the Premier League.

Middlesbrough were the better team throughout the 90 minutes against Bristol City. The only problems were that at times there seemed a lack of urgency to get the ball in the final third, and they didn’t test Fielding as much as they should have.

However, Pulis was satisfied in the end, saying: “The first half at Sheffield United wasn’t good enough from us, the application and desire were very poor, while the second half was fantastic.

“We’ve spoken about it, about the need not to get uptight and that’s what the players have to do, embrace the challenge. They’re fortunate lads, these are great games to play in and manage and that’s the attitude they must have.

“You need to roll your sleeves up, puff your chest out and work your socks off when you don’t have the ball. We did that against Bristol City and got the win we needed.”

Middlesbrough had to show character after falling behind to City. It was a sloppy goal to concede because there were opportunities to clear their lines.

Mo Besic should have done more to prevent Marlon Pack from heading a dropping ball back into the area to begin with, and that caught out Ayala and Friend, who saw Djuric arch his body and volley inside Darren Randolph’s far post.

It was hardly the sweetest of finishes but it still found a way into the net and that could easily have knocked the stuffing out of Middlesbrough after a bright enough start from the home side.

But Boro responded as they needed to. Traore, handed corner-taking duties in the absence of the suspended Grant Leadbitter, sent over two well-taken flag-kicks and Friend got the equaliser before Ayala’s back-post header found a way in, despite the efforts of Josh Brownhill on the line.

Pulis said: “Bristol City play very direct with two massive lads up front, big, powerful lads, and you’re always concerned about the ball coming from a knock down.

“They’re a handful, which you have to deal with, and we had to be alert to that, couldn’t rest on anything. We played some good stuff, though, and I’m pleased. Adama was back to what he was before he went away with Spain as well.”

Traore made a number of strong runs down the flank and his crosses tended to be good, even if there was nobody to get on the end of them.

Middlesbrough’s cause was not helped when Bamford had to be replaced after more than nine minutes of treatment midway through the first half.

Bamford had hit the ground hard after falling awkwardly under a challenge from Bristol City’s Aden Flint, targeted by Middlesbrough last summer, and he was taken to hospital after being stretchered off.

He will be checked again this week to determine whether he is fit enough to face Derby next Saturday, with Pulis knowing that with Rudy Gestede sidelined, the only alternative is Britt Assombalonga.

Pulis said: “He was in the dressing room taking some stick off the players after the game, so he’s fine. He went down either winded or he’s hit his head, but he’s fine.

“I’ve not really spoken to him or the physios, I’ve just hammered him for being soft. Only joking. I have hammered him though! If we kicked off now he’d have his boots on and would be fine.”

Even without Bamford, Assombalonga being unable to test Fielding in a way he would have liked and surviving a late scare when Bobby Reid fired over, Middlesbrough got the job done.

Having beaten a top-ten team for only the second time this season it will be hoped the confidence boost has come at just the right time to get Middlesbrough over the line in the promotion race.