CAMERON ARCHER struck twice against his former club Preston to help secure a 4-0 win for Middlesbrough that has closed the gap on second-placed Sheffield United to three points.

With the Blades in FA Cup quarter-final action against Blackburn this weekend, it was a huge opportunity Boro could not really afford to miss – and they did not.

Once top scorer Chuba Akpom poked a fine finish beyond Freddie Woodman in the 22nd minute for his 25th goal of the season, Middlesbrough played with even greater freedom and confidence.

Archer’s first arrived in the 52nd minute and his second against the club where he spent the second half of last season on loan followed in the 58th minute. Marcus Forss wrapped up the win in stoppage-time.

There was no way back for Preston, who are now eight points adrift of a play-off spot after seeing a seven-match unbeaten run come to an end, and their misery was compounded when defender Bambo Diaby was sent off with two minutes left.

Initially, even though Middlesbrough had more of the ball, there was very little between the two teams until the opening goal.

The nearest either side had come before that was when Preston’s Brad Potts headed wide at the back post under a challenge from Dael Fry.

At that point Middlesbrough looked like they might struggle to breakdown a defence that had kept 16 clean sheets with Woodman in goal.

But when Howson rolled a pass into Akpom 25 yards from goal, the first goal followed. Middlesbrough’s leading scorer played a first-time pass to Archer, who returned the pass for the 27-year-old to control and finish beyond Woodman.

There was then a 20-minute spell where Middlesbrough passed the ball around beautifully, much to the frustration of more than 1,800 travelling Preston fans.

The second goal did not arrive until after the break. Akpom was denied a second when Woodman got down low to turn an effort away at the end of a move when Middlesbrough failed to make the most of a three-on-one situation.

Before that Woodman had also made a fine save to prevent Ben Whiteman from scoring in his own net when he made a mess of a clearance from Marcus Forss’ cut back into the area.

And Middlesbrough almost paid the price moments before the half-time whistle when Preston striker Tom Cannon turned a cross into the arms of Zack Steffen at the near post.

Any fears of Preston making the most of some wet second-half conditions soon disappeared with Archer’s two goals inside seven minutes.

Firstly, he made the most of Diaby’s hesitancy and beat Jordan Storey before firing low and beyond Woodman.

His second was even better. He controlled Akpom’s pass 22 yards from goal, looked up and then drilled into the Preston net with Woodman well beaten.

Cannon forced another save out of Steffen for Preston, but then Diaby was red carded for bringing down Akpom.

And after Alex Mowatt hit the bar with a free-kick, Forss turned in Ryan Giles’ low cross to cap the win.

Show less