THE list of absentees very nearly makes an incredibly strong Championship XI.

Tommy Smith, Dael Fry, Darragh Lenihan and Lukas Engel would arguably be Carrick’s first choice defence; Hayden Hackney and Lewis O’Brien are among the very best midfielders at this level and Marcus Forss and Riley McGree were both major players for Boro last season.

They were all missing on Tuesday night and yet rather than feel sorry for themselves, Boro responded in quite stunning style, blowing Preston North End away in a blistering first half that brought back the very recent memories of watching Michael Carrick’s brilliant side in the second half of last season as they charged up the Championship table.

Preston boss Ryan Lowe must hate coming to the Riverside. His side were thumped 4-0 on Teesside last season, but at least this time he didn’t have to worry about Cameron Archer, who scored twice that day, Chuba Akpom, who was also on target, and Ryan Giles, who set up three goals.

Those players are in the past but Preston couldn’t contain Boro’s present attack. Isaiah Jones scored a classy first half double, assisted by Morgan Rogers and Matt Crooks. Crooks now has five assists in his last 10 Championship appearances.

In between Jones’ classy finishes came Rav van den Berg’s first Boro goal. His finish from Jonny Howson’s corner was slightly scruffy but most of Boro’s play, in the first half in particular, was sublime.  Alex Bangura rounded off the victory with his first Boro goal in the dying seconds.

There were positives all over for Carrick. Dan Barlaser, in for the injured Hayden Hackney, made Boro tick. Goalscorer van den Berg moved to centre-half in place of the injured Dael Fry, which meant there was an opportunity for Anfernee Dijksteel at right-back. He took his chance.

As did Rogers, who replaced the rested Greenwood. With the Leeds United loanee ineligible to face his parent club on Saturday, Rogers will almost certainly keep his place. Bangura can also be extremely satisfied with a solid showing in what was just his second Championship start in the absence of the injured Lukas Engel. Not that Bangura’s defensive qualities were really put to the test. Preston only managed one shot on target. Boro are still a point behind Preston but North End have won just one of their last 11 games and this was a game between two teams heading in different directions.

With so many players missing, Boro’s bench included 16-year-old Fin Cartwright and Law McCabe, just a year older.

It’s credit to Carrick and Boro that despite their wretched start to the season and the many injury setbacks they’ve had to deal with, they came into this game just four points behind the visitors, who occupied sixth spot before kick-off. The gap to the play-off places is now down to three points.

Boro scored three goals before the break but could have had more.

Boro won a corner with the game less than 60 seconds old, would have had a glorious opportunity to score the opener had Rogers spotted Bangura unmarked on the left in an early attack before they did break the deadlock after just 16 minutes.

Not for the first time, Boro benefited from the understanding between Crooks and Jones down the right. Barlaser played his part as well. The midfielder kept a cool head on the edge of the box when he could have gone for glory, instead moving the ball on to Crooks, who played in Jones with an inch-perfect through-ball for the winger to slot beyond former Newcastle keeper Freddie Woodman.

Whether it was Latte Lath’s brilliance or indecision that created the second goal is up for debate, but Boro won’t be bothered either way. When the striker was played away down the left he shimmied to cut back three times before finally teeing up Crooks, whose shot was deflected wide. Preston’s relief was extremely short lived. From the resulting Howson corner, van den Berg bundled the ball over the line from close range.

Boro looked like scoring every time they attacked and their third – and Jones’ second – came eight minutes before the break. Barlaser was again involved, touching the ball on to Rogers, who played it into the path of Jones to lift coolly over Woodman.

Had it not been for the Preston keeper, Jones would have earned himself the match-ball just a minute after his second goal, Woodman saving well with his feet. And he kept out a stinging Rogers drive soon after.

Sorry Preston needed half-time, their only two shots in the first half wayward efforts from captain Ben Whiteman. Furious Ryan Lowe made two changes at the break, introducing Ched Evans and Liverpool loanee Calvin Ramsay and the visitors will have been encouraged by a couple of attacks, but the first clear cut opening of the second chance fell Boro’s way, Rogers’ shot fisted away by Woodman.

With Boro coasting, Carrick was able to withdraw both Jones and Rogers with 20 minutes still to play, Saturday’s trip to Leeds no doubt in mind.

It got even better for Boro. Matt Clarke was introduced for the final seven minutes, his first appearance since October 1, last year and McCabe came off the bench to make his debut.

Then, in the dying seconds Bangura cut in from the left and found the bottom corner to score his first Boro goal and wrap up an emphatic win.