IF Middlesbrough can keep motoring along at the sort of pace that left in-form Preston trailing, Michael Carrick’s side will be playing in the Premier League next season.

That is why Carrick wants to use the international break for his players to take a pit stop, refuel and return to the Championship promotion race in top gear when Boro head to Neil Warnock’s relegation-threatened Huddersfield on April 1.

On the evidence of Saturday’s display, Carrick needs to do everything he can to ensure the momentum carries on when they return to action in West Yorkshire against one of his predecessors.

Middlesbrough fans have been hugely impressed by performances since he took over in October but, even though he thinks there was room for improvement, the one against Preston was arguably as comprehensive and confident as there has been.

From the moment 24-goal Chuba Akpom controlled and finished from Cameron Archer’s pass after a lovely one-touch move in the 22nd minute, a promising start without goalscoring opportunities turned into one of vibrancy, fluency and chances.

It could be a shame there is a break now, or it could actually be the perfect possible time for a refresh before Middlesbrough try to topple Sheffield United in the run-in to seal the second automatic promotion spot.

Carrick said: “We’ll still train this week but the boys will have a couple of days off and there will be less training. We’ll still work when we have to work though because we want to make sure we keep that edge.


“It’s not the time of year to take the foot off the gas and tailor off until the end of the season. It’s time to push the pedal to the floor and keep working hard, if not harder, and keep pushing in terms of keeping the edge for the performances we want.

“The boys will have a couple of days training [this week], but they’ll have some days off too to get away, spend some time with the family and do whatever they have to do and what they want to do to come back refreshed next Monday.”

Middlesbrough fans have every right to be excited ahead of the final eight games of the season. What has been produced since Carrick took over in October, when a defeat to Preston at Deepdale was when the Teessiders were at the wrong end of the table, has proven that he has a promotion capable squad.

If Middlesbrough fall short over the next couple of months it will largely be down to the poor start to the campaign – and confidence should still be high enough going into a play-off push.

“It was a good performance,” said Carrick. “There are bits that we can improve on still, of course. We’re not the finished article by any stretch. But in terms of the performance it was very good because they’re not an easy team to play against.”

Akpom had tested Preston goalkeeper Freddie Woodman further before the break but it was the way Middlesbrough knocked the ball around after his goal that impressed the most.

When Cameron Archer turned inside Bambo Diaby and Jordan Storey and finished six minutes after the break Middlesbrough had lift-off.

Seven minutes later Archer’s second was even better. He controlled Akpom’s pass, steadied himself and unleashed an unstoppable drive low and beyond Woodman from 22 yards.

After that Preston forced Zack Steffen into one save from Tom Cannon before Diaby saw red for pulling down Akpom. Alex Mowatt curled the free-kick against the bar before Marcus Forss turned in Ryan Giles’ cross in stoppage-time.

Finnish forward Forss, who was one of two changes to the side, has nine goals now and said: “It is never nice to be on the bench and when you are you have roll your sleeves up in training, make sure you get back in the team. It was nice to start and score. You always want to score.

“I've always wanted to score as many as possible. This is a different role for me playing off the right side more, so to score nine goals has been good. I want more."