Leaders Norwich extend advantage with victory over Middlesbrough
Norwich took another step towards the Premier League with a 1-0 win at Middlesbrough, whose own promotion chances have nosedived in recent weeks.
The victory came courtesy of Onel Hernandez’s second-half goal to leave the Canaries five points clear at the top of the Sky Bet Championship and seven points better off than third-placed Sheffield United after a fine run of form.
Daniel Farke’s side have now won seven games in a row, but the result marked Boro’s fourth successive defeat and sees them drop out of the play-off places, leapfrogged by Aston Villa, Derby and Bristol City.
Middlesbrough started this contest promisingly, putting Norwich on the backfoot.
George Friend, former Norwich man Jonny Howson and Ashley Fletcher all had shots at Tim Krul’s goal, though for all of Boro’s pressure the goalkeeper was not seriously tested.
It was Middlesbrough’s Darren Randolph who, while his team shaded an entertaining first half, made the more impressive saves.
A tremendous stop saw him push Teemu Pukki’s effort away, and Randolph was again to the rescue when Ryan Shotton horribly misjudged a punt down the middle, allowing the ball to bounce through to Pukki before Boro’s keeper dashed off his line to block at the Finn’s feet.
Randolph also showed good reactions when, with Pukki ready to pounce, he pushed away a bouncing Marco Stiepermann cross-shot.
Just like the first 45 minutes, Middlesbrough made a promising start to the second half.
Within 60 seconds of the restart they hit the post, Daniel Ayala with a header after a Shotton throw, and Howson saw a low shot after a free-kick gathered by Krul.
The only goal of the game came after 54 minutes, and, while harsh on Middlesbrough on the balance of play, they had only themselves to blame.
Fletcher did not deal with a ball swung in from a wide area and then Howson tried to dribble his way out of trouble. Norwich won the ball back and Hernandez nipped inside the penalty area to shoot low between the post and Randolph.
It was his seventh league goal of the season and he tried for an eighth later but Randolph was equal to it after Pukki had teed up his team-mate.
Boro boss Tony Pulis made three substitutions as he sought to find a way back into the contest and Boro did come close to levelling, their best chance being when substitute Stewart Downing had a powerful header hooked away from the line by the outstretched boot of Christoph Zimmermann.
And in added time Norwich defended in numbers to protect their lead, a blocked John Obi Mikel shot being Boro’s last hope of point.