- Cristhian Stuani strikes only goal after 44 seconds
- Boro go one point clear at the top of the Championship
- Karanka’s side not conceded at home since September 15
- Wednesday stay seventh; won two of last eight in all competitions
MIDDLESBROUGH reclaimed top spot in the SkyBet Championship as a first-minute goal was enough to see off play-off hopefuls Sheffield Wednesday.
Cristhian Stuani directed home Stewart Downing’s cross inside 44 seconds for his sixth league goal of the season.
After a first half dominated by Boro, Wednesday were improved after the break and almost levelled when Ben Gibson deflected Barry Bannan’s corner on to his own crossbar.
But Boro held on for a club-record equalling seventh successive clean sheet to leapfrog Derby County – their upcoming weekend opponents who could return to the summit on Tuesday night with a win at Leeds.
Middlesbrough boss Aitor Karanka was delighted with his team’s resilience and the impact of the substitutes to dig in during a testing second period and secure a sixth victory in seven games in his 100th league game as manager.
Sheffield Wednesday had won back-to-back league games but could not repeat last season’s thrilling triumph at the Riverside Stadium and missed out on the chance to move into the play-off places.
Head coach Carlos Carvalhal expressed his fury that Boro postponed their Boxing Day match with Blackburn and had not played since their 3-0 win at Brighton nine days ago as his appeal to move the game was rejected by the Football League.
With the 96-mile trip from south Yorkshire to Teesside coming just 48 hours after their 3-0 win over Birmingham, he made six changes to the team as Lucas Joao came in to lead the line and 10-goal top scorer Fernando Forestieri was among five players dropped to the bench.
The Portuguese’s anger would only have increased when an unchanged Boro side went ahead before he had even took to his seat as Stuani made a near-post run across Rhoys Wiggins to stab home from six yards.
As confidence coarsed through the Boro veins, it could have been two just two minutes later when Emilio Nsue’s driving run and shot was deflected inches over by Sam Hutchinson.
Although Wednesday were able to get a hold of the ball, an isolated Joao cut a frustrated figure as Boro sat deep in numbers and waited for the right moment to spring forward – with Downing heavily influential in dictating the tempo.
The former Liverpool winger – capped 35 times by England – spread the play to George Friend and the left-back’s cross was headed straight at Wednesday keeper Joe Wildsmith by Stuani on the quarter-hour mark.
Friend failed to connect with another inch-perfect Downing ball when unmarked at the back post as Boro’s fluid forays wreaked havoc for the visitors, who managed just one attempt at goal in the first half.
Carvalhal shook things up at the break as Forestieri replaced Jose Semedo to offer support for Joao and Daniel Pudil entered the fray for Hutchinson – who sustained a knee injury.
The introduction of Forestieri inspired an immediate upturn in fortune for Wednesday as the ex-Watford frontman saw a deflected effort travel narrowly over the crossbar before he was denied a tap-in by goalscorer Stuani after Bannan’s corner caused mayhem.
6ft 6in Atdhe Nuhiu – who scored three goals against Boro last term – offered a different threat to the hosts’ backline when the Austrian striker replaced Jeremy Helan midway through the second half.
One member of the Boro defence almost doubled their lead when Daniel Ayala crashed a header over from captain Grant Leadbitter’s free-kick inside the six-yard box.
As anxiety crept in around the Riverside, Karanka – evidently concerned by Wednesday’s resurgence – opted to shut up shop by adding defender Tomas Kalas in place of forward Kike.
Carvalhal had more reason for complaint about perceived Boro time-wasting while referee David Coote awarded a series of fouls which halted the Owls’ hopes of building momentum.
But the visitors almost found an equaliser 10 minutes from time when Boro defender Gibson guided Bannan’s corner on to his own woodwork.
Wednesday continued to press without carving any clear-cut chances as Middlesbrough – who switched to a back three in the closing stages once Fernando Amorebieta came on for Nsue – closed out a fifth home league win in six.
Boro have now gone 641 minutes without conceding as they prepare to welcome the Rams to the Riverside on Saturday while the Owls will seek a first win on the road since beating Yorkshire rivals Rotherham in October when travelling to Fulham.
Substitutes: Fabbrini (on for Adomah 62′), Kalas (on for Kike 73′) and Amorebieta (on for Nsue 89′)
Not used: Mejias (GK), de Pena, Forshaw, Zuculini.
Booked: Clayton (34′)
Goals: Stuani (1′)
Substitutes: Pudil (on for Hutchinson 45′), Forestieri (on for Jose Semedo 45′) and Nuhiu (on for Helan 68′)
Not used: Price (GK), Sasso, Hunt, Wallace.
Booked: Palmer (37′), Bannan (60′), Joao (77′), Loovens (79′)
Referee: David Coote (Nottinghamshire) – 8/10