Preston boss Ryan Lowe admitted the Lilywhites had little answer to Middlesbrough’s class as they charged into the automatic promotion places with a comfortable 4-0 win at the Riverside.

Boro are now just three points behind Sheffield United, who have a game in hand, and Michael Carrick’s men brought an end to Preston’s eight-match unbeaten run.

Chuba Akpom struck his 24th goal of the season in the 22nd minute to set Boro on their way before former Preston loanee Cameron Archer added two goals in seven second-half minutes.

And once Preston defender Bambo Diaby had been sent off for bringing down Akpom two minutes before the end, Marcus Forss completed Middlesbrough’s win in stoppage-time.

Lowe said: “It was a tough afternoon, I’m gutted really. We knew it would be tough. I am disappointed, but can’t be too down because they have been on a fantastic run.

“That shows we are not play-off contenders because of the levels we have seen. We will dust ourselves down, go into the derby in two weeks’ time with Blackpool looking for a response.

“We do things on a daily basis that work. The players have been fantastic. They have come up short this time. There are no excuses. That is the level we have to get to.

“Middlesbrough were around the bottom of the division earlier in the season, now they are pushing. That’s what can be done. They have good footballers but so do we.”

Middlesbrough boss Michael Carrick hailed the impact of Archer.

Carrick said: “Cameron’s performances of late have been good. He is motivated anyway, not sure if there was any extra motivation there. He feeds off scoring goals.

“It was nice for him to score because he was touch and go today, he rolled his ankle (in training) and had a fitness test. We took him off with a precaution. We will see how it goes.

“The boys were good all round. It was a good performance from the start and we really got in our stride from kick-off. All aspects of the game were good, the energy and some of our football was very good.

“The longer the game went on, sharing the goals, the loads, it was a good game and day for us.

“We will go away in the international break now, refocus for the run-in and take it game by game and see how it goes.”