One more giant stride towards Premier League survival for Stoke, one more hefty nudge towards the drop for Middlesbrough. Ryan Shawcross's glancing header seven minutes from time increased the likelihood of these sides finishing on opposite sides of the safety line in just over two months' time, fixed as they now appear to be on contrasting courses.
Stoke once again have daylight between themselves and the bottom three as well as a formidable home record showing one defeat in 12 games. "That's the loudest I've known it in five-and-a-half years here," said their manager Tony Pulis of supporters who have become truly inspiring. There's belief in all corners of the Britannia Stadium.
Middlesbrough now trail Stoke by five points and are locked in an away run nothing short of embarrassing. Gareth Southgate's side actually played well enough, only to switch off when Shawcross ran diagonally across the goalmouth to produce the decisive flick from Rory Delap's long right-wing throw.
Eight straight away League defeats, seven of them without scoring, one win in 18 League games... there are damaging statistics wherever Middlesbrough supporters care to look. The key one, though, is that the club have only eight games to save their skin – and possibly their manager's. For this tense, raucous afternoon, Southgate switched for the first time to the use of three central defenders. He commendably backed his side to outplay their hosts rather than merely try to match up to their brawn and ended it by walking the gauntlet in front of his club's deflated fans.
"I expect there's going to be anger," he admitted. "The way the ground is set up here, I knew that if we lost, I would get a lot of abuse. You know what's coming. What we think we might have deserved is irrelevant. We have been punished for the one set-piece we didn't defend. It's a huge ask now because this is a big blow but teams have got out of it before and we have to do the same."
What is blindingly obvious is that Middlesbrough's 11-year stay in the top flight will be over unless they find some conviction in their finishing. Apart from Tuncay Sanli, who dipped one venomous shot on to the roof of the net and generally looked a threat, and Gary O'Neil, who prompted away and brought a good save from Thomas Sorensen, they were tentative where it most mattered as a host of half chances were frittered away.
At the other end, warning came from an early Delap throw, following which James Beattie stretched his leg to bring a fine reflex save from Brad Jones, and Beattie later volleyed over from a tight angle before passing up the game's best chance as he got under an inviting header set up by Liam Lawrence's fine run and cross.
Pulis reacted boldly to Stoke's initially unconvincing performance by making two early substitutions and his side improved. Shawcross's header from a Lawrence free-kick flew straight to Jones but the central defender measured his angles correctly with the third Premier League goal he has added to the seven he scored in last season's Championship.
Newcastle and Blackburn still have to visit Stoke who next go to West Bromwich. "All the games are going to be tense and tight like that," Pulis said. "It's a smashing result and we will need that same resilience between now and the end of the season."
Referee: Lee Mason
Man of the match: O'Neil
Match rating: 6/10Reuse content