Albert Adomah’s first-half goal proved the difference as Middlesbrough cemented their place in the Sky Bet Championship’s automatic promotion places with a 1-0 win over Preston.
Adomah struck his eighth goal of the season in the 32nd minute to help Boro claim a fourth successive win and a vital three points in the race to the Premier League.
Middlesbrough, who trail leaders Burnley by a point, will now climb to the top of the table on Tuesday if they win their game in hand against Reading.
Preston, sitting mid-table, could have left the Riverside with a positive result but Middlesbrough did just enough to get the job done and climb four points clear of third-placed Brighton, who play on Monday.
Burnley’s narrow victory over Leeds in the day’s early kick-off put the pressure back on Boro to deliver against Preston.
But the Lilywhites have been a decent team in the Championship this season and they were looking for a third straight away win for the first time since February 2005.
Preston’s good form showed too during a bright opening 20 minutes and they might have tested Dimi Konstantopoulos in the Middlesbrough goal had defender Daniel Ayala - back in the side after injury - not cleared a couple of dangerous crosses.
But the hosts, after a shaky start when they lost possession cheaply, gradually grew in confidence and Preston goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard was forced into his first save from a Cristhian Stuani header at his near post.
David Nugent, preferred ahead of Jordan Rhodes in attack, worked tirelessly throughout and he went close when Lindegaard dropped a routine cross. Nugent rounded the keeper and saw his shot blocked when he might have had a penalty had he gone down.
Preston did fall behind just after half an hour. When George Friend, whose probing down the left was constant threat for Middlesbrough, rolled a pass into the penalty area, Adomah took a touch before applying a lovely finish from six yards.
Middlesbrough’s play deserved a second and it almost arrived before the break when Ayala’s through pass sent Nugent clear. The former Preston striker, who left Deepdale in 2007, was prevented from scoring when his shot was saved by Lindegaard.
But North End found an extra gear after the restart and threatened to equalise. Paul Gallagher wasted a fantastic chance from six yards and then, just after the hour, Friend made a brilliant goalline clearance to deny substitute John Welsh an equaliser.
Konstantopoulos also had to make a brilliant stop from a Marnick Vermijl thunderbolt and after that Middlesbrough managed to steady things as nerves around the Riverside increased.
They also had a couple of late efforts, the best of which saw Adomah denied by Lindegaard from close range, but Middlesbrough had done enough anyway.
Karanka said: “We don’t want to be in the Championship next season and at the beginning of the season the aim was to get in the play-offs.
“With the experience we have had from last season, now with six games to go, we are there because we are doing really well and it shows how good the players are.
“Now we have to forget the play-offs and promotion and just concentrate on the next game. Every point is gold and the key today was the crowd.
“Sometimes when you don’t feel their support you are going down but with them behind us the team is confident. We are more than together and that is the main thing.
“It is important to win at this time of the season. Now we have our game in hand but we cannot think we have the three points in our pocket already.”
For all the latest from today’s games, check out The Yorkshire Post’s live feed by clicking the link below....