Aitor Karanka purred over Middlesbrough’s ‘best performance of the season’ as they went four points clear at the top of the Sky Bet Championship.
Goals by Albert Adomah and George Friend in the last 10 minutes gave Boro their 16th win of the campaign against promotion rivals Derby at the Riverside Stadium.
The impressive victory also stretched Boro’s current unbeaten run to eight games - while their seventh consecutive clean sheet at home is their best run for 30 years.
Karanka beamed: “It was an amazing game, it’s important for us to win.
“We’re the best team now because we’re top, but it doesn’t mean anything in January with another 22 games to go.
“We’re in a really good condition and we have to keep going. One month ago Hull were five points above us and now we’re five points above them, but at this stage we’ve done nothing and there’s a long way to go.
“The emotions are difficult to explain because there was a lot of pressure on us. We’re proud of the defensive records we’re setting. It’s proving hard to create chances against us.
“We have more experience, more maturity and more quality compared to this time last year and there are no injuries.
“This was another special occasion here and the fans help to make that. It’s good for us.”
Karanka says he was just as pleased with his side’s display as with the result.
“It wasn’t just the score, it was the performance that I was happy with,” he added.
“Maybe it was the best we’ve played this season, probably because of the quality of opposition we were up against.”
It was only Derby’s third defeat of the season and boss Paul Clement took the blame after his decision to withdraw midfielder Jacob Butterfield in the second half, sending on an extra forward in Andreas Weimann, backfired.
Clement said: “Middlesbrough played very well with good intensity but we weren’t at that level for the start, only in spells.
“We edged it on chances in the first half but with 20 minutes to go I made, you could argue, a quite bold change with an attempt to create a good chance and it didn’t work.
“Soon after that they scored and they scored again and it’s game over. I have to take full responsibility for that.
“We didn’t play as well as we can but Middlesbrough deserved to win. I’m holding my hands up for making an attacking change.
“They’re decisions I have to make as the game goes on. Some managers would have settled for a point but I wasn’t one of those.”
The Rams stay second in the Championship table, a point above Hull, and Clement added: “It’s the best performance I’ve seen from an opposing team this season, but if you’d offered us this situation after 25 games I’d be more than satisfied.
“We’ll reflect on this and then move on quickly.”