Cardiff City continued their playoff push with a convincing 3-1 win at the Riverside Stadium, a result that meant Middlesbrough will go into the final day of the season with relegation still on the line. Defender Sean Morrison opened the scoring for Cardiff and substitute Josh Murphy added a brace, before Britt Assombalonga added a late consolation for the home team.
Neil Warnock named an unchanged Middlesbrough team from the midweek 2-1 win at Reading, with Ashley Fletcher leading the attack in a 4-2-3-1. George Friend and Dael Fry formed the central defensive partnership for Boro, with Aynsley Pears retained in goal.
Cardiff entered the game in 6th place, and Robert Glatzel led the attack as the Bluebirds looked to stay on track with three points here. Former Boro playmaker Lee Tomlin played behind Gratzel in a 4-2-3-1, with Will Vaulks and Joe Ralls completing the midfield trio.
Cardiff won a 2nd minute free kick when Tomlin picked up the ball between the Niddlesbrough lines and drove forward before being fouled by George Saville. The free kick was lifted into the area and headed away by Friend before Cardiff were whistled for an attacking foul.
Fired up on his return to the Riverside Stadium, Tomlin was involved again a minute later when he collected a pass from Leandro Bacuna before having his shot blocked behind by Jonny Howson for a corner.
The visitors took the lead from the corner, as Ralls swung in a corner for a wide open Morrison to head home.
It was an awful goal to concede defensively for Middlesbrough, given the corner started with a 5v4 numbers up marking situation for Boro, and ended with a wide open Morrison heading home from in front of goal.
Middlesbrough won a free kick in the 8th minute, when Ashley Fletcher was fouled while sandwiched between two Millwall defenders as he brought down a Marvin Johnson throw in.
Howson’s free kick was cleared by Morrison, before a second cross from Djed Spence was deflected behind for a corner by a combination of Junior Hoilett and Glatzel. The first corner was knocked behind, before Fry was whistled for a foul on Morrison to end the attack.
Cardiff came forward again in the 11th minute, and Ralls picked up a pass from Nathaniel Mendez-Laing on the edge of the penalty area before having his shot saved by Pears. Hoilett picked up on the rebound but fired his shot from a tight angle well off target.
Marcus Tavernier forced a turnover in the attacking third for Boro when he pressed Mendez-Laing, but Johnson’s cross cleared everyone on the way out for a throw in.
Cardiff City winger Hoilett limped off with an injury in the 18th minute, and would be replaced by Murphy in what went on to be a very impactful substitution for the Bluebirds.
As has been the case so many times this season, Boro were stripped for pace at the back when Glatzel took a touch past Fry before being dragged to the ground by Friend who received a yellow card for the foul.
Tomlin’s shot from the free kick was blocked by the wall, before a Cardiff cross was headed behind by Tavernier. Vaulks drove the corner deep to the back post but it cleared everyone on the way out for a goal kick.
A right wing cross from Vaulks was headed clear by Friend, before Cardiff came again and Mendez-Laing’s shot was blocked behind for a corner by Saville. The corner from Ralls was cleared by Fry before Murphy’s header rolled harmlessly into the arms of Pears.
Cardiff won a 39th minute free kick when Glatzel made a run into the channel and was fouled by Friend. Ralls curled in a cross from the free kick, but it was comfortably gathered by Pears.
The Bluebirds won a corner when Murphy chased a long punt from goalkeeper Alex Smithies into the channel and Johnson stepped over to challenge. Pears got a weak punch on Ralls’ corner before Fletcher hooked it clear.
Boro winger Spence had the final chance of the half, but his header from Johnson’s cross was well over the crossbar.
Middlesbrough had work to do at halftime, having been thoroughly second best in the opening period. The only good news came from elsewhere as if the halftime score of 0-0 between Hull City and Luton Town stayed as it was, Boro would be mathematically safe from relegation, even with a defeat here.
Things quickly got worse for Middlesbrough after the restart when Murphy doubled Cardiff’s lead from a 47th minute counter-attack.
Boro midfielder Patrick Roberts launched a free kick from the halfway line, and the ball was cleared to Tomlin. Former Boro playmaker Tomlin released Murphy with a slide rule pass and the winger advanced on goal before placing a neat finish beyond Pears and into the net.
The goal marked the second time in a week that Boro had conceded from their own attacking set play, after Jamie Paterson’s goal for Bristol City when countering from a Boro corner the previous weekend.
Boro won a 51st minute corner when Tavernier carried the ball down the right flank before the ball was worked to Fletcher, who had his attempted pass blocked behind by Bacuna. Friend got on the end of the driven corner from Roberts, only to volley his shot well wide of the target.
Middlesbrough won another corner when a blocked shot from Roberts was worked wide to Anfernee Dijksteel, and the fullback’s cross was deflected behind by Joe Bennett. A short corner routine ended in Roberts hanging a cross up to the back post, only for Smithies to gather it comfortably.
Warnock made a triple substitution in the 58th minute as Boro looked to claw a goal back, introducing Hayden Coulson, Paddy McNair and Assombalonga in place of Dijksteel, Saville and Roberts.
Friend had a shot blocked behind for a corner as Boro pushed on, only for Howson’s corner to be just too high and clear everyone.
Boro continued to fight for a way back into the game and Tavernier cut in off the right flank before having his powerful shot tipped over the bar by Smithies.
Warnock continued to make attacking changes in the 67th minute, bringing on Lukas Nmecha in place of Fletcher.
Nmecha had an opportunity with his first touch after receiving Tavernier’s cutback from the byline, but the Manchester City loanee’s shot was saved by Smithies.
Howson’s corner found Fry at the back post, but the defender’s blocked header was followed by two more balls into the box before Coulson directed his header straight at Smithies.
Cardiff manager Neil Harris made a double substitution at the hydration break, replacing Glatzel and Tomlin with Marlon Pack and Danny Ward.
Tomlin had put in an impressive performance all game, finding space between the Boro lines and picking out passes forward to release the Cardiff front three.
Boro midfielder McNair sprayed the ball out to Coulson and the young winger’s cutback was cleared by Curtis Nelson, before two Johnson crosses were headed clear by the Bluebirds.
Cardiff launched a counter-attack that ended when Howson received a yellow card for dragging down Murphy. Bennett lifted the free kick onto the area and Morrison headed wide of the target.
Murphy came forward again in the 78th minute, driving past Spence before having his cross cleared behind by Fry. Morrison got on the end of the set play cross again but directed his header wide at the back post.
Cardiff all but ended the game as a contest in the 81st minute, when Mendez-Laing raced past Fry on the right flank and sent over a low cross for Murphy to take a touch and tuck it away under pressure from Spence.
Neil Warnock has spoken in recent weeks about the need for more and better defenders to be recruited into the squad. Pace and athleticism are likely to be part of the requirements sought, as this goal was yet another example of speed being the undoing of Boro this season.
Boro won an attacking free kick in the 85th minute when Nmecha was released by Coulson and hauled down by Morrison, who received a yellow card for the challenge.
Assombalonga stepped up to take the free kick, and curled an excellent finish over the wall and beyond Smithies to claw the score back to 3-1. Any joy Boro fans felt after Assombalonga’s goal will have melted away after news filtered through of a significant goal elsewhere in the division.
Kazenga LuaLua had netted an 85th minute goal to give Luton Town a 1-0 lead at Hull City. A result that would hold and mean Middlesbrough would go into their final game of the season at Sheffield Wednesday with relegation still a possibility.
Boro received even more bad news in the 89th minute, when Howson needlessly lunged into a reckless foul on Vaulks while already on a yellow card, and was sent off by referee Jeremy Simpson. Murphy stepped up to take the free kick on a hat-trick, but curled his effort wide of the goalpost.
Boro continued to come forward, and Assombalonga sprayed the ball wide to Coulson who was cynically hacked down by Bacuna. Fullback Bacuna was booked before Johnon sent in a cross that was headed back across goal by Fry before being cleared by the Bluebirds.
Boro launched a couple of long balls forward in the final stages, but they were headed clear by the impressive Morrison and late substitute Sol Bamba as Cardiff closed out the win.
Middlesbrough were convincingly beaten and would now head to Sheffield Wednesday only two points above the relegation zone. Luton and Charlton Athletic would both need to gain final day victories to make Boro sweat, while the Teessiders were placed above Birmingham City on goal difference alone.
Boro would head into their crunch game at Hillsborough without midfielder Howson, who was suspended following his undisciplined red card here. Paddy McNair would be a leading contender to replace Howson in the Boro engine room. Assombalonga would also likely be pushing for a start after scoring in two of Boro’s last three games.
Cardiff would now need only a point in their final game against Hull to guarantee a playoff spot. Even in defeat, it would take a victory from arch rivals Swansea City over REading on the final day to see the Bluebirds drop out of the top six.
4’ CAR Sean Morrison (Joe Ralls) 0-1
47’ CAR Josh Murphy (Lee Tomlin) 0-2
81’ CAR Josh Murphy (Nathan Mendez-Laing) 0-3
85’ MID Britt Assombalonga (Lukas Nmecha) 1-3
MAN OF THE MATCH
#4 CD Sean Morrison (Cardiff City) – The impressive center back was a rock in defense throughout for Cardiff, passing well and also adding the opening goal to cap an outstanding display.
3: LM Marcus Tavernier – An impressive display in a losing cause from the winger, carried the ball forward throughout and sent crosses into the area as Boro pushed to find a way back into the game.
2: CF Britt Assombalonga – A sign of Boro’s poor display that Assombalonga’s impact as a late substitute made him one of the standouts of the day. Scored an excellent free kick goal late on to add some consolation to the scoreline.
1: CF Ashley Fletcher – Battled and showed his strength up front with the little service he did get, and made a few clearances from defensive set plays.
3: CD Sean Morrison – Man of the Match.
2: LM Josh Murphy – An injury enforced first half substitute, Murphy made a decisive impact on the game, scoring twice and troubling Boro with his pace out wide.
1: CM Lee Tomlin – The former Boro man pulled strings throughout, finding space between the lines and playing forward. Capped his display with a slide rule pass to assist on Murphy’s goal to put Cardiff 2-0 up.