WITH Storm Christoph battering the Midlands for most of yesterday afternoon, Neil Warnock had feared last night’s game at the City Ground would not take place. In the end, the rain abated before kick-off and it was Warnock’s players, rather than the elements, that were able to inflict considerable damage. Courtesy of arguably their most accomplished performance of the season, Middlesbrough blew an in-form Nottingham Forest away.

If Saturday’s lacklustre showing against Birmingham City had placed a question mark against Boro’s promotion credentials, this was a showing to suggest they are more than capable of remaining at the heart of the battle for at least a play-off place.

The defensive resolve that characterised much of their play in the first three months of the season was back, with Paddy McNair and Dael Fry combining to form a watertight central-defensive partnership and Jonny Howson returning to the starting line-up for the first time since early December to successfully shut down the Forest midfield. As he slipped seamlessly into his preferred position at the base of midfield, it was as if Howson had never been away.

Further forward, Britt Assombalonga was back to his best, a development that could prove crucial to Boro’s prospects in the second half of the season if, as now looks likely, Warnock is unable to sign another striker this month.

To coin a well-worn cliché, getting Assombalonga back on song would be liking making a new signing, not perhaps a £15m one anymore, but certainly one with a proven track record for scoring Championship goals.

Assombalonga opened the scoring with a fine low strike and also hit the post with a first-half header as he ran the Forest defence ragged. George Saville claimed Boro’s second goal, rounding off an excellent counter-attacking move that Assombalonga started, and the Teessiders more than merited their latest away success.

Aside from the return of Ashley Fletcher, who could be available for the trip to Norwich City a week on Saturday, this was the strongest side at Neil Warnock’s disposal. It told. Howson’s return to the heart of midfield meant the Middlesbrough manager was able to restore his most important on-field lieutenant to the starting line-up, while the presence of both Assombalonga and Duncan Watmore meant the Teessiders carried much more of an attacking threat than they had been able to muster in the first half of last weekend’s defeat to Birmingham in particular.

This has been a strange season for Assombalonga, who was handed the captain’s armband in the summer but who has struggled to replicate his usual scoring form despite Boro’s reasonably impressive attacking record.

There was always a chance a return to the City Ground would spark a revival – the 28-year-old made his name as a Forest player, scoring 30 goals in 65 league appearances during a three-year spell on the banks of the Trent – and so it proved. So often laboured and lethargic this season, Assombalonga was razor sharp against his former employees.

He certainly couldn’t have been any slicker as he opened the scoring after 14 minutes, with Howson’s through ball from the right-hand side dissecting the Forest back four. The home side’s defenders seemed to be gambling on an offside flag, but Assombalonga had timed his run and perfectly and swept home a crisp low finish from 14 yards.

It was only the skipper’s fifth league goal of the season, a return he will want to increase markedly in the second half of the campaign, but the assured nature of the finish underlined why he is a much more threatening proposition than Chuba Akpom, who is competing with him for a starting spot. On his day, Assombalonga remains one of the most accomplished finishers outside of the Premier League.

He came within inches of scoring again shortly before the half-hour mark, as the Forest goal led an extremely charmed life. Paddy McNair swung over a free-kick from the right, and after peeling away from his marker, Assombalonga thumped a powerful header against the post. The ball rebounded and hit Brice Samba, who knew nothing about it, but rather than conceding an own goal, the Nottingham Forest goalkeeper was relieved the see the deflection fly wide of the post.

With Marcus Tavernier also drilling in a low shot that Samba saved, Boro’s counter-attacking threat was a theme that ran throughout the whole of the game.

The same was true of the quality of the visitors’ defending, with Howson’s return helping solidify the midfield and Warnock’s preferred back four once again stepping up to the mark to shackle a Forest attack featuring the proven Lewis Grabban, once of Sunderland, and the maverick talents of Sammy Ameobi, formerly of Newcastle United and briefly a Boro loanee.

Ameobi drilled an early effort wide of the target, and Ryan Yates headed over in the 28th minute as he rose to meet Cafu’s free-kick. It said much, though, that the interval arrived without Marcus Bettinelli having been pressed into any form of serious action.

Boro’s defensive resolve was epitomised by a moment on the stroke of half-time that summed up the never-say-die attitude Warnock has instilled into his squad. Ameobi looked certain to convert Yuri Ribeiro’s cross as he steamed in towards the back post, but straining every sinew, Marc Bola somehow got back to force his body between the Forest forward and the goalmouth. The ball was diverted behind for a corner, and a satisfied Warnock turned away from the touchline with a smile on his face.

The Boro boss was even happier five minutes after the break as his side doubled their lead with a superbly well-worked second goal.

Assombalonga was influential once again, holding the ball up brilliantly on the halfway line despite the attention of two Forest defenders before rolling a pass into Tavernier’s path.

Tavernier picked out Saville’s run through the heart of the Forest backline, and with plenty of time to pick his spot, the Northern Irishman rolled a composed finish beyond Samba and into the bottom corner. It was Saville’s fourth goal of the season, all of which have come away from the Riverside.

With a two-goal lead to defend, Boro became understandably less ambitious, but their defence remained rock solid despite Forest boss Chris Hughton throwing on Lyle Taylor and Anthony Knockaert and effectively throwing caution to the wind.

Ameobi shanked a shot wide on the hour mark, but with Bola rattling a shot against the crossbar and Samba making a sharp save from Sam Morsy at the other end, it was Boro that continued to look the likelier scorers.

Their clean sheet disappeared in the second minute of stoppage time, with Forest substitute Loic Mbe Soh heading home Joe Lolley’s cross, but any hopes of a dramatic ending disappeared when Ribeiro was rightly sent off in the final seconds as he appeared to aim a head-butt at Assombalonga.

With Forest's composure in tatters, Boro successfully saw things out to claim a thoroughly-deserved success.