Marcus Forss’ second-half winner ensured Middlesbrough’s promotion charge under Michael Carrick continued with a 1-0 win over Millwall.
After a relatively tight first half at the Riverside, the Finnish forward scored the crucial opener in the 54th minute to put Boro in the driving seat in this battle between two play-off contenders.
Forss’ fifth goal since moving from Brentford in the summer secured an eighth win from the 11 Championship games under Carrick’s management.
It was enough to lift Middlesbrough up to fourth and force Millwall, whose four-match unbeaten run came to an end, out of the top six.
Middlesbrough and Millwall – both knocked out of the FA Cup last weekend – have been in strong form in the league, with the Teessiders winning six of their previous seven and Millwall losing just one of their previous eight.
The Lions had kept clean sheets in the last three of those but within the first five minutes Middlesbrough carved open two good chances.
The first saw Matt Crooks flick Hayden Hackney’s through pass into the arms of goalkeeper George Long. Within a minute Long made a stronger save when he raced out to deny in-form striker Chuba Akpom after Crooks had picked out his strike partner in acres of space 20 yards from goal.
Those missed opportunities meant Millwall could settle. Zian Flemming saw a lot of the ball and he was the first visiting player to test goalkeeper Zack Steffen from 25 yards.
Apart from a dangerous Crooks delivery that was prevented from being turned in by Long, there was very little else to excite at either end in the remaining 20 minutes of the first half – except for a caution for Long when he prevented Akpom from taking a quick corner.
And Millwall’s Danny McNamara almost scored an own goal when Shaun Hutchinson’s clearance hit his team-mate and dropped inches wide of the post.
Even though Middlesbrough had control of the ball, with Millwall inviting pressure, Gary Rowett’s side had tended to do what they needed to do to keep the ball out of harm’s way.
Crooks looked set to score immediately after the restart only for Hutchinson to get back in time to prevent the Middlesbrough forward from shooting.
Within a few minutes, though, Forss finally delivered the breakthrough. He brushed Murray Wallace aside on the right before picking his spot and rolling a fine finish inside Long’s far post.
Millwall started to show more attacking intent after that without testing Steffen, who did make a mess of a ball into his box when ex-Middlesbrough man George Saville’s attempt to score was forced for a corner.
Millwall’s Tom Bradshaw headed over in the closing stages but Middlesbrough did not have too much to worry about and Carrick’s promising start to life on Teesside goes on.
Middlesbrough’s Michael Carrick:
“Marcus has been great. The way he has gone about it, with his attitude, and tried something a little bit different has been great.
“It is not brand new to him but it is different. Just because he is playing wide doesn’t mean he can’t get in the box and score goals and he has shown that today.”
Millwall’s Gary Rowett:
“It was a difficult game. We did a lot of things really well and showed again we are a tough side to play against. What you hope is that one moment goes for you rather than against you.
“They are going to have more possession here, but I don’t think George Long has had loads of saves to make. We had an incredible moment first half when we were four-v-one in the transition, but you feel moments like that are huge at places like this where Michael has them playing really well and their form has been excellent.”