Middlesbrough can start to dream the improbable after an impressive performance yesterday gave them a victory which leaves them only four points off a place in the top four of the Premiership. The team which is already in the Uefa Cup, thanks to their Carling Cup win, are suddenly jostling for a place in the Champions' League.
They are one of the form teams, far too formidable for Southampton, whose manager, Paul Sturrock, discovered a few unpalatable truths about the players he inherited last month.
In one respect, there was far more at stake for Southampton, but nobody could have guessed that they were the team who badly needed a victory to sustain their slender chance of qualifying for the Uefa Cup.
Boro's qualification for that competition appears to have ignited an appetite for goals that was largely obscured earlier in the season. The three they put past Southampton were apt reward for an enterprising and energetic display that was anchored by their golden triangle of talent in midfield. Gaizka Mendieta, Boudewijn Zenden and Juninho dominated the match, extracting a response from Massimo Maccarone and Szilard Nemeth, two strikers yet to win over Boro's fans.
They soon will if they continue to combine as they did for the opening goal in the 23rd minute. Nemeth, released by Maccarone, pulled the ball back into the path of Juninho who claimed his eighth league goal of the season in clinical style.
Eight minutes later, the forward pair were again involved as Boro went two up. Mendieta's perceptive pass sent Maccarone on a run which was only halted by goalkeeper Antti Niemi's lunge at his feet before Nemeth steered in the loose ball.
Southampton mustered only one first-half response to Boro's incessant attacks, Danny Mills chesting Claus Lundekvam's shot off the line on 26 minutes.
And the visitors went further behind five minutes into the second half when Maccarone stabbed home after more sloppy defending had enabled Franck Queudrue to create the opening.
Southampton did eventually reply, albeit with a helping hand from Mark Schwarzer, the Boro goalkeeper. He fisted a dropping ball to Beattie and the striker returned for his 15th goal of the season. Boro's superiority was unthreatened, however, and they demonstrated it in marvellous style when Mendieta's sublime touch freed Juninho, whose shot was saved by Niemi.
"That would have been the goal of the season," said McClaren, who confessed this was a rare occasion when he actually enjoyed watching his side. "I don't always like watching from the sidelines, but I enjoyed the quality of our football, the passing and the three goals. There could even have been more."
Sturrock also admired the standards set by Middlesbrough, but was "very disappointed" in his own team's performance.
He said: "This was part of the learning process. I am finding out which players want to be in the trenches and which want to go out the back door."
Goals: Juninho (23) 1-0; Nemeth (31) 2-0; Maccarone (50) 3-0; Beattie (70) 3-1.
Middlesbrough (4-3-1-2): Schwarzer 7; Mills 7, Ehiogu 7, Cooper 7, Queudrue 7; Mendieta 9 (Greening, 86), Boateng 7, Zenden 8; Juninho 8 (Ricketts, 88); Maccarone 8, Nemeth 7 (Downing, 81). Substitutes not used: Jones, Bates.
Southampton (4-4-2): Niemi 5; Telfer 5, Lundekvam 5, Higginbotham 5, Crainey 6; Fernandes 4 (Pahars 57, 5), Folly 5, Delap 6 (Svensson 81), Prutton 6; Phillips 5, Beattie 4. Substitutes not used: Smith, Hall, Ormerod.
Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury) 7.
Man of the match: Mendieta.
Attendance: 30,768.Reuse content