Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka has banned all talk of the play-offs despite watching his nine-man team emerge as 3-1 victors from a “crazy game” with Birmingham at the Riverside Stadium.
What had looked like a processional fixture beforehand proved to be anything but as four goals, two dismissals and two injuries made for a scintillating evening on Teesside.
Two goals in quick succession from Danny Graham and Jacob Butterfield midway through the first half put the hosts in charge before 20-year-old Emyr Huws forced Birmingham back into the game with a glorious strike from 40 yards.
Boro’s George Friend and Blues striker Lee Novak were forced off through injury before the break and high tensions led to early baths for home defenders Ben Gibson and Kenneth Omeruo in the closing stages, before Lee Tomlin’s late strike sealed the win.
With sixth-placed Reading losing at Bournemouth on Tuesday night, Boro could feasibly gatecrash the play-off places with a strong finish over five games, but Karanka is urging serious caution.
“I don’t want to speak about the play-offs because the moment we speak about the play-offs we will lose our next game,” said the Spaniard.
“I prefer to think about the next game at Burnley as being one against a team near the top of the table and we have to go there to win the game.
“We have won the last three games and for this I am very happy.”
Reflecting on the match, which could have easily swung back in Birmingham’s favour after Omeruo and Gibson saw red cards for needless tussles at the death, Karanka said: “Tonight’s was the kind of game that has everything: goals, chances, injuries and sendings-off.
“I think it was a crazy game but the most important thing was that we won the game.
“I thought the score might have even been 7-4 or 7-5 and the people here today enjoyed watching the game.”
With Gibson and Omeruo confirmed absentees for the trip to Turf Moor, Karanka will hope left-back Friend’s hamstring injury is not too serious.
The former Doncaster man never recovered from an early pull and was withdrawn for Jonathan Woodgate.
There were plenty of hints dropped that something special would happen in the first half.
Early on, Darren Randolph tipped Nathaniel Chalobah’s lofted effort over the bar.
The on-loan Chelsea midfielder soon tricked Huws into conceding a free-kick, from which he headed narrowly wide.
The moment that immediately preceded the goal rush evoked gasps from around the Riverside as Omeruo got his head to the ball to clear Chris Burke’s goalbound shot.
In the 29th minute Graham broke the deadlock with the most conservative goal of a breathtaking six-minute spell.
Jonathan Woodgate - on as an early sub for the injured George Friend - headed a corner ball into the six-yard box where Boro academy product Graham controlled and finished with ease.
Only 85 seconds later, Butterfield controlled Jozsef Varga’s throw-in to scream the ball past Randolph from fully 20 yards.
The Boro faithful made sure to convey their gratitude to the former Norwich man, and then stayed on their feet to applaud the goal that most definitely upstaged his effort.
As Birmingham probed for a rare opening in the Boro backline, Huws simply looked up and arched a dipping thunderbolt under the bar from 35 yards.
Andrew Shinnie could even have equalised before the break, but his header from Conor Reilly’s cross bobbled across goal and wide.
The stricken Lee Novak was carried off on a stretcher and replaced by Nikola Zigic in first-half stoppage time to sympathetic applause.
Seven minutes into the second half Graham should have made it 3-1 when clipping a shot off the vulnerable Randolph and onto the bar.
Just past the hour mark the menacing Sunderland loanee burst through the Blues defence to test Randolph with a low shot, with Paul Robinson impressively clearing the rebounding ball.
The draw remained one accurate kick away, though, and sub Jordon Ibe came close to levelling with a low drive to the far post after cutting inside.
Emmanuel Ledesma has won games for Boro with his individual skill and invention and nearly rubber-stamped the result from the bench with a searing strike down Randolph’s throat.
Omeruo walked after grappling with Ibe - his second bookable offence on the night - and Gibson followed him down the tunnel on the same basis after fouling Zigic moments later.
Birmingham attacked their depleted hosts with fervour, but it was Tomlin who had the last laugh.
He gambled with a bouncing ball over the top before smashing past Randolph to end the contest.
Middlesbrough: Konstantopoulos, Varga, Friend, Leadbitter, Omeruo, Gibson, Adomah, Chalobah, Graham, Butterfield, Williams
Subs: Steele, Tomlin, Ledesma, Main, Atkinson, Kitching, Woodgate
Goals: Graham, Butterfield, Tomlin
Booked: Omeruo, Gibson
Sent off: Omeruo, Gibson
Birmingham City: Randolph, Spector, Reilly, Caddis, Thorpe, Robinson, Burke, Huws, Macheda, Shinnie, Novak
Subs: Ibe, Doyle, Packwood, Zigic, Lee, Adeyemi, Ferguson
Goals: Huws. Booked: Reilly, Robinson