MIDDLESBROUGH have won just once in their past five games after Sofiane Boufal’s memorable first Premier League goal sealed victory for Southampton.
Boufal joined Saints in a club-record deal worth £21m last summer and the Moroccan’s moment of magic proved decisive at St Mary’s in a game of few clear-cut chances.
Southampton’s victory moves them up to 10th in the table while Middlesbrough remain 16th.
Boufal has taken time to settle since initially arriving injured from Lille, but the 23-year-old is a precocious attacking talent and manager Claude Puel will hope his brilliance here, worthy of winning any game, is just the beginning.
The odd goal was always likely to settle this contest considering both teams have averaged fewer than one a game in the Premier League, with Southampton managing only 20 shots on target in their last six before kick-off and Boro a league-low 36 all season.
If that was not enough, they each had to do without their top goalscorers too.
Southampton’s Charlie Austin was sidelined due to a shoulder injury that requires surgery and will sideline him for three to four months, while Alvaro Negredo sat out for Middlesbrough having picked up a hamstring strain against Hull City a week ago.
For the visitors, it meant only a second start of the season for Jordan Rhodes, bought from Blackburn for £9m in the January transfer window, but who has so far failed to convince head coach Aitor Karanka of his talents.
The 26-year-old endured another forgettable afternoon, doing little to suggest he is set for an extended run in the team.
“It was difficult, he had his chance,” Karanka said.
“He is a player who has played (yesterday). I knew one day he would have his chance and he is there.”
Southampton manager Puel said of match-winner Boufal: “Sofiane is a talent, but also it is important to work with a good attitude. For example in the first half we saw a lot of dribbles without a good thing, he lost a lot of balls. It was not a good Sofiane.
“It was important he came back in the second half and found a good solution when he plays one or two touches and keeps his spontaneity.”
Southampton: Forster, Martina, Fonte, van Dijk, McQueen, Clasie (Long 85), Romeu, Ward-Prowse, Tadic (Redmond 46), Rodriguez, Boufal (Davis 73). Unused substitutes: Yoshida,Reed,Bertrand,Taylor.
Middlesbrough: Valdes, Barragan, Chambers, Gibson, Da Silva, Forshaw, Clayton, de Roon, Stuani (Traore 81), Rhodes, Fischer. Unused substitutes: Bernardo, Leadbitter, Guzan, Downing, Nsue, Nugent.
Referee: Stuart Attwell (Warwickshire).