Aitor Karanka hailed Gaston Ramirez’s “best performance” in a Middlesbrough shirt for inspiring his players to a vital victory over Huddersfield which closed the gap to leaders Burnley in the Championship promotion race.
Ramirez, on loan from Southampton and set to become a free agent in the summer, won a penalty in the 32nd minute for former Sunderland midfielder Grant Leadbitter to convert and then scored his first goal of the night seconds later.
He was the difference between Huddersfield and us.
The Uruguayan, who has hinted he would be interested in staying at the Riverside, followed that up by curling in a brilliant 25-yard free-kick with 13 minutes remaining to complete a 3-0 win.
It lifted Boro to within a point of the leaders and they still have a game in hand, though Brighton are just a point behind in third place. The Teessiders’ next two games against Preston and Reading are also at home.
Karanka said: “Gaston was the player who changed everything.
“For the first 25 minutes, we looked as if we were playing for nothing. He was the difference between Huddersfield and us.
“It was his best game for us. He scored, he worked and he came up with an assist for the penalty. The things we expected when he came here.
“The main thing is he’s getting better every single day.”
Ramirez took his tally to six goals in 10 starts in a Middlesbrough shirt since moving in January and he could be the difference in the promotion race.
But with Brighton – who won at Birmingham – also just a point behind Boro in third, Karanka is taking nothing for granted.
The Middlesbrough boss said: “If the other teams are losing and we are losing it’s all the same. It depends on us.
“Once again it’s about us and that’s the main thing. We have a game in hand, we need to keep playing as consistently as we are and we are in a really good position. We have to keep going because this league is really tough.”
Boro had failed to make the most of early possession. Albert Adomah created their earliest chance when he pinched the ball off Joel Lynch, only for Jordan Rhodes to waste it.
But Lynch was given a tough night from that moment on and the Teessiders, who would have scored earlier had goalkeeper Jed Steer not made a fine stop from Rhodes, were two goals up before the break.
Lynch got himself in a mess just after half an hour when Ramirez’s clever turn just inside the area earned a foul. Leadbitter, who missed a penalty at QPR on Friday night, struck powerfully down the middle to get things rolling.
Immediately from kick-off former Sunderland and Boro midfielder Dean Whitehead gifted Ramirez possession when his attempted pass to full-back Tom Smith went straight to the red shirt.
Ramirez, with acres of space in front of him, darted straight at the Huddersfield goal. He rounded Steer comfortably before finding the roof of the empty net with a tidy finish from the left of goal.
Huddersfield tried to make a fight of it for a large part of the second half, but the home side’s goalkeeper Dimi Konstantopoulos was rarely tested except for when he comfortably gathered a free-kick from Joe Lolley.
Ramirez almost created the next goal, when his excellent run and pass was perfect for Adomah, who was denied by Steer when it seemed Boro would score.
But he delivered the next goal himself when he curled in a scintillating free-kick from 25 yards to put the game to bed.
Middlesbrough: Konstantopoulos, Nsue, Kalas, Gibson, Friend, Clayton (Forshaw 74), Leadbitter, Adomah, Ramirez (Stuani 86), Downing, Rhodes (Nugent 79). Subs Not Used: Ayala, De Laet, Mejias, De Sart. Goals: Leadbitter 32 pen, Ramirez 33, 77.
Huddersfield: Steer, Smith, Hudson, Lynch, Davidson, Whitehead (Billing 82), Huws, Lolley (Scannell 84), Paterson, Bunn, Wells (van La Parra 71). Subs Not Used: Matmour, Cranie, Allinson, Bojaj. Booked: Wells.
Att: 24,669 Ref: Stephen Martin (Staffordshire).