Sheffield Wednesday 1 Middlesbrough 2: Boro make Owls pay price for slipshod defensive work

MANAGER Tony Pulis will be able to enjoy Middlesbrough's latest Hillsborough win for a little bit longer than his predecessor.

Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough players disentangle themselves following a goalmouth melee as the hosts sought a late equaliser at Hillsborough (Picture: Tim Goode/PA Wire).

The meeting between these Yorkshire combatants at S6 last Christmas famously saw then Boro chief Garry Monk handed an unexpected and undesired early Yuletide ‘present’ when he was unceremoniously sacked hours after his side’s 2-1 success – with Wednesday counterpart Carlos Carvahal leaving the next day.

Boro repeated that scoreline last night when they secured their third successive win at Wednesday to move to the top of the Championship on goal difference.

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While Pulis will have been able to sleep soundly after his side shrugged aside a lethargic first -half showing to prevail, his Owls counterpart Jos Luhukay will not have been able to rest so easily, you imagine.

On the second-half evidence it was easy to see why Wednesday headed into the game in search of their first league clean sheet since April 28.

Two weak concessions in a kamikaze spell early on – including a dreadful second – effectively handed the game on a plate to the Teesside club.

Given that Boro went into the proceedings with a proud record of never having been beaten in their previous 67 Championship matches when they had scored first they were always unlikely to look such a gift horse in the mouth.

That they were afforded a position of such strength after just 55 minutes reflected damningly upon the hosts Wednesday given that the visitors’ efforts were so underwhelming in the first period.

One-paced in the opening 45 minutes, Boro were handed an energy top-up on the restart courtesy of a shambolic home defensive display.

Muhamed Besic’s second successive away goal got the ball rolling and an atrocious Tom Lees backpass soon enabled Britt Assombalonga to net his fifth goal of the season and put Boro firmly in command.

A splendid volley nine minutes from time from ex-Boro winger Adam Reach, who again showed his repertoire for the spectacular and his abhorrence of tap-ins, pulled one back for the Owls, but the damage had been done.

Both sides matched up with three central defenders in a first half in which the action was sporadic, but the two moments of inspiration came from the hosts.

In between bouts of self-inflicted sloppiness in possession the Owls went close twice and it came as no surprise that Reach was at the heart of both episodes.

Reach and Barry Bannan looked the men most likely in blue and white and they combined almost to telling effect when the latter sent over a delightful left-wing cross with Reach’s glancing header clipping the woodwork.

Reach then went solo just before the half-hour mark in an attempt to reprise his magnificent goalscoring contribution against Leeds United with his piledriver flying inches over.

By contrast, one-paced Boro were predictable and lacked zip, with their customary threat from set-pieces being the only thing in their locker.

Their best moment saw Daniel Ayala head over following a precious nugget of quality from a dead-ball situation from Stewart Downing, but it was all too stodgy going forward, if typically solid at the back.

A shut-out was a welcome sight at the interval for the Owls, but it was obliterated within ten minutes of the restart.

Some probing work on the right saw the Owls unhinged with Downing’s cute flick supplying Jonathan Howson, whose cross picked out Besic. He showed impressive footwork before steering home a precision low shot.

It was the cue for Wednesday to palpitate defensively and a wretched back pass played blind by Lees was seized upon by Besic, who raced clear before teeing up Assombalonga for a gift from six yards out.

It took the introduction of Atdhe Nuhiu to provide the hosts with hope and he almost reduced the arrears with a firm header, which was blocked by Aden Flint.

After heading down cul-de-sacs in the first half, Boro – with Besic, Howson and Downing starting to enjoy themselves immensely – found scores of gaps on the restart as the Owls creaked.

But out of nothing Reach afforded Wednesday a lifeline and it was no surprise that his effort was right out of the top drawer.

His instinctive and classy right-foot volley flew past Darren Randolph, who was left rooted to his line, and Wednesdayites suddenly started to believe again.

By the end, Boro had six players on the pitch who had played at centre-back during their careers, but they almost shipped in a leveller at the finish with Lees’s effort blocked by a sea of bodies on the goalline.

Sheffield Wednesday: Dawson; Lees, Hector, Thorniley; Palmer, Pelupessy, Bannan, Reach, Penney; Joao (Nuhiu 63), Fletcher. Unused substitutes: Wildsmith, Fox, Pudil, Onomah, Kirby, Preston.

Middlesbrough: Randolph; Ayala, Flint, Fry; Shotton, Howson, Clayton, Besic (Batth 90), Friend; Downing (Saville 85), Assombalonga (Hugill 79). Unused substitutes: Lonergan, McQueen, McNair, Gestede.

Referee: P Bankes (Merseyside).