MIDDLESBROUGH’S return to action could not have gone much worse as they crashed to a 3-0 home defeat to Swansea City.

Playing in front of a deserted Riverside Stadium, Boro conceded three goals in the space of 16 first-half minutes as they were deservedly beaten.

Rhian Brewster scored twice, with Andre Ayew also finding the target from the penalty spot, as Boro’s failing were repeatedly exposed.

Jonathan Woodgate’s side started the day two points clear of the drop zone, and now face a major battle to safeguard their Championship status in the next eight games.

Boro were returning to action after a break of more than three months, and Jonathan Woodgate sprang a selection surprise before kick-off as he left Patrick Roberts, Ashley Fletcher and Britt Assombalonga out of his starting side.

Swansea started the game on the brink of the play-offs, and the visitors were quickly into their stride as Boro were ragged and disorganised from the off.

The Swans came within inches of opening the scoring after just seven minutes, with George Friend’s untimely slip affording Aldo Kalulu a free run on goal. The forward chipped the advancing Dejan Stojanovic, but the ball hit the right-hand post and rebounded the safety.

That was a let-off for Boro, and another followed almost immediately after as an unmarked Brewster headed wide from inside the six-yard box after Conor Gallagher nodded the ball down to him.

Brewster, who is on loan from Liverpool, troubled the Boro backline throughout, and the striker swung the game decisively in Swansea’s favour as he scored two goals in the space of three minutes midway through the first half.

Both were a result of some dreadful Boro defending, with Brewster twice finding space in and around the six-yard box.

First, the striker slotted home from close range after Ayew surged past Jonny Howson and delivered a low cross from the left.

Then, moments later, Brewster produced an even better finish as he peeled off Ryan Shotton to convert Kalulu’s chipped cross with an excellent first-time volley.

Boro were reeling, and things got even worse 11 minutes before the break as Swansea added a third goal.

Friend found himself on the wrong side of Gallagher as the Swans midfielder latched on to Jay Fulton’s through ball, and his panicked attempt to rectify the situation only resulted in him tripping his opponent.

Ayew stepped up, and calmly rolled his spot-kick past Stojanovic’s right hand. Three down after 34 minutes – it was safe to say Boro’s comeback was not going to plan.

The Teessiders’ only first-half chance of note came to nothing when Rudy Gestede headed wide from a corner, and the striker failed to find the target again at the start of the second half as he met Hayden Coulson’s cross from the left.

Boro never really looked like testing Freddie Woodman in the Swansea goal, which made it all the more surprising that it took until the 69th minute for Jonathan Woodgate to introduce Assombalonga and Fletcher from the bench. Surely the pair will start at Stoke next weekend?

Swansea almost added a fourth in the 89th minute, but substitute George Byers curled a 20-yard shot against the outside of the right-hand post.

Boro finally recorded their first effort on goal in stoppage time, with Friend firing in a long-range effort that Woodman tipped around the post.