Boro got their promotion push back on track yesterday, defeating Roy Keane's struggling Ipswich Town side 3-1. Victory was a welcome boost after two successive defeats and the departure of Tuncay and Roberth Huth to Stoke. The growing pessimism amongst fans was reflected by a sub-20,000 crowd - the first time this has ever happened for a league fixture at the Riverside.
Keane has certainly stamped his mark on the Suffolk club - they may be without a win all season but they could generously be described as committed. They picked up five bookings, an unsurprising tally given a string of clumsy lunges, including a challenge by Damien Delaney on Gary O'Neil that was so late it hasn't started yet.
The returning O'Neil started strongly and was heavily involved in the opening goal. He seemed to be fouled as he was baring down on Richard Wright but the referee waved away Boro's appeals. The reprieve didn't last long - Gareth McAuley dithered, allowing Marvin Emnes to return the ball back in the area where O'Neil had regained his footing in time to steer a looping header beyond the grasp of Wright.
Ipswich did have their moments, forcing a string of corners midway through the first half, one of which required David Wheater to clear McAuley's effort from the line. Despite lacking fluency, it was Boro who looked a more potent threat - a linesman's flag spared McAuley the embarrassment of an own goal while a sparkling run from Adam Johnson ended with an lamentable attempt to win a penalty, which led to fully deserved booking for the winger.
The pattern continued after the break as Ipswich struggled to convert possession into real chances while Boro offered sporadic incision. Two men often derided had a key influence. Julio Arca wrested control of the midfield, winning the ball well and prompting attacks intelligently. But it was the unlikely figure of Jeremie Aliadiere who provided the greatest influence on the outcome of the game.
Shortly after replacing the ineffective Leroy Lita, Aliadiere met Johnson's inviting cross with a deft header past Wright. A second followed when the Frenchman showed smart footwork to create space to drill into Wright's bottom corner. He should have also been credited with an assist - having linked smartly with fellow sub Mark Yeates to set up Emnes, the young Dutch striker missed the ball completely.
Boro couldn't hold on for a clean sheet as Ipswich became the first visiting side to score this season in the dying seconds of the game. Adam Johnson risked a second yellow card with a silly foul and again by getting involved in a frank exchange of views with penalty taker Jon Walters. Walters managed to regain his composure to beat an irritated Danny Coyne.
Not for the first time this season, Boro showed that they didn't need to achieve a great deal of attacking fluency to see off a limited side, overly reliant on set pieces and physicality. Even on a mediocre afternoon, Adam Johnson possesses more invention than most Championship defenders can handle.
The games come thick and fast over the next few weeks, starting with Sheffield Wednesday on Tuesday night. Brian Laws side have made a decent start to the season and the Owls can be expected to provide more of a threat than an uncomplicated Ipswich side.
Off the field, there is growing expectation that highly rated Preston defender Sean St Ledger will soon move to the Riverside on a loan deal with a view to a permanent deal being completed in January. Goal-shy lump Caleb Folan is also the subject of heavy speculation, with a loan move to either Boro or Newcastle seemingly imminent.
With last season's relegated sides already congregated at the top of the league, the gap between the top two division is already being highlighted. The early suggestion is that this may turn out like Boro's last season in the second tier. Then, Forest, Boro and Sunderland dominated, with the mackems amusingly missing out on promotion despite accruing over 90 points. In such context, next week's match against second placed West Bromwich Albion takes on increased importance.