But, just as in midweek, it was the mercurial Paul Merson who was the difference between these promotion hopefuls. His exquisite touch condemned Sunderland to only their second defeat in 18 games.
Yet Sunderland opened this 114th Tees/Wear derby, its passions fuelled by Premiership prospects, so brightly. Niall Quinn used every inch of his 6ft 4in body to collect wayward passes and lay them off accurately while Alex Rae and Lee Clark dominated midfield both physically and mentally. Their approach play pushed Boro back and back but never troubled Mark Schwarzer.
Gradually Middlesbrough sparked into life. In the 20th minute, Merson tried a couple of flicks with the outside of his right red boot that nearly put in Craig Hignett and then Vladimir Kinder. A minute later, his corner was met by Nigel Pearson's gigantic leap but Nicky Summerbee cleared from the line. It all clicked together in the 30th minute. Branca held the ball up in his own half until Merson relieved him. He ghosted 40 yards through Sunderland's golden shirts and played a reverse pass to Andy Townsend. The Irishman squared to the Italian who took every millisecond available before scoring beneath Lionel Perez.
Just after the hour, Bryan Robson gave a debut to his pounds 1.6m signing from Stockport, Alun Armstrong, which allowed Merson to drop behind the front line into his preferred role. It worked within six minutes. Merson eluded Holloway to reach Armstrong's tap along the halfway line. The England man, who must have impressed the watching national assistant coach John Gorman, crossed at the end of his 20-yard run to Branca who nutmegged Chris Makin, fended off the defender's second challenge and whipped his shot through Perez.
Merson also inspired the third, his exquisite crossfield ball to Armstrong starting a move that involved Branca and Kinder and ended with Armstrong chesting the ball down on the edge of the area and sweetly turning and volleying home.
There was just time for Clark to score a last-minute consolation - but it was no more than that for Sunderland's manager Peter Reid. "Middlesbrough were a different class: pace, power, and some very good players," he said. "Merson's playing the best of his career, he's added a finesse to his game, and on the break Middlesbrough remind me of Manchester United. There's no finer compliment."Reuse content