THEY couldn’t, could they? Six games unbeaten and now just six points off the top six with six games remaining, Middlesbrough have successfully breathed new life into their previously faltering play-off hopes.

Yes, it is still going to take a sensational end to the season to overhaul the four teams currently standing between them and a play-off place, with the three sides directly above them in the table having a game in hand, but Michael Carrick’s side deserve a huge amount of credit for dragging themselves back into the equation either side of the international break.

Handed the glimmer of an opportunity this afternoon when sixth-placed Norwich lost at Leicester in the early kick-off, the Teessiders took full advantage as they ground out a deserved victory over a Sheffield Wednesday team who appear destined for League One unless they improve markedly on what was a lacklustre showing.

Carrick’s side were far from fluent themselves for much of the afternoon, but they created the better chances and strung together the more polished passing sequences, even if they needed a stroke of luck to force a first-half breakthrough, with Owls defender Michael Ihiekwe deflecting Sam Greenwood’s corner into his own net as he attempted to challenge Emmanuel Latte Lath.

Isaiah Jones added a second goal with 17 minutes remaining, and Boro could even afford to shrug off a late missed penalty from Greenwood as they closed things out without any scares.

Their second-half dominance was particularly pronounced, but ultimately it was their defensive resilience that enabled them to finish as emphatic victors. They might be missing an entire back four, but they have now conceded just one goal in their last five matches, a hugely impressive statistic given that Dael Fry, Darragh Lenihan, Paddy McNair and Tommy Smith are all unavailable.

Indeed, while the availability of Jones was a welcome boost, with the winger having recovered from the knock that forced him off in the Good Friday draw at Southampton, the absence of 11 senior players meant Middlesbrough’s entire starting line-up still had something of a cobbled-together look.

Jonny Howson is a more than capable deputy at centre-half, but the skipper’s presence in the back four meant his bite was missing at the heart of midfield. Similarly, while Greenwood and Finn Azaz have performed effectively in attacking-midfield roles on occasion this season, neither can really boast the goalscoring threat of a Riley McGree or a Marcus Forss. Carrick is making a decent fist of dealing with Boro’s ongoing injury crisis, but at such a pivotal point of the season, the absence of so many influential performers is far from ideal.

There was a somewhat disjointed feel to much of the home side’s early attacking play. It was the 20th minute before Boro recorded their first attempt at goal, with Lewis O’Brien firing in a side-footed effort from 25 yards that deflected wide off Barry Bannan, and another quarter-of-an-hour before Greenwood threatened again with a free-kick that dipped just over the crossbar.

For the rest of the opening period, the Teessiders’ attacking moves tended to break down long before the final third, with Jones and Greenwood both struggling to make much headway against Sheffield Wednesday’s five-man defence.

The exception came in the 39th minute as Greenwood found sufficient space to deliver a teasing cross from the left, but while Jones was unmarked at the back post, he could only slice a wasteful shot wide of the target.

Sheffield Wednesday’s first-half attacking was even less threatening, although things might well have been different had Marvin Johnson taken advantage of the visitors’ best opening of the game in just the fourth minute. The former Boro wing-back galloped clear onto a long ball down the left, but while his angled drive beat Seny Dieng, the ball shaved the outside of the far post.

That was a let-off for Boro, and when an Owls player did manage to put the ball into the net four minutes before the interval, the home side were grateful once again.

Ihiekwe rose to challenge Emmanuel Latte Lath as Greenwood swung in a corner from the right, and when Boro’s Ivorian striker failed to make any contact with his attempted header, the Wednesday centre-half could only deflect the ball past James Beadle and into his own net.

Ihiekwe’s bad day might well have got worse two minutes after the break, but while the defender looked to have conceded a penalty, referee Matthew Donohue waved away Boro’s spot-kick appeals.

O’Brien was clearly caught by Ihiekwe as he got to Greenwood’s short corner ahead of his opponent, but play was allowed to continue. Understandably, O’Brien was incensed by the decision to play on.

Boro could have done with a second goal to eradicate any possibility of a Wednesday fightback, but while Azaz released Latte Lath into the left-hand side of the area midway through the second half, the summer signing from Atalanta fired well wide of the target.

Greenwood was much more clinical a couple of minutes later, drilling in a 20-yard strike that Beadle did well to beat away, and Boro finally claimed a second goal with 17 minutes remaining.

Luke Ayling released Jones down the right, and the winger’s shot looped beyond Beadle thanks to a hefty deflection off Bannan.

Boro should have extended their lead further with nine minutes left after Bannan was penalised for handling Ayling’s cross at the back post. Greenwood stepped up to take the penalty instead of Latte Lath, who was still on the field at that point, but the Leeds loanee’s side-footed effort rebounded off the base of the left-hand upright.