Middlesbrough kept their playoff hopes alive with a comprehensive win against a misfiring Stoke side.
Boro entered the game off the back of a controversy-filled 2-1 loss to Swansea City. They sat in ninth place going into the contest, just two points ahead of their opponents from Staffordshire.
Neil Warnock was understandably seething after that game, and he made three changes to his side with Neeskens Kebano, Chuba Akpom and Djed Spence all coming in for Duncan Watmore, George Saville and Anfernee Dijksteel – with the fullback recently ruled out for the season.
Stoke had also experienced drama against Swansea in recent weeks, but got back to winning ways with a 2-0 victory against Wycombe Wanderers in their previous fixture.
Michael O’Neill named an unchanged XI for just the third time this season, after Rhys Norrington-Davies passed a late fitness test. Christian Norton and Rabbi Matondo both returned to the substitute’s bench.
— Stoke City FC (@stokecity) March 13, 2021
The return fixture saw the three points remain in Staffordshire, thanks to a Nathan Collins header in the 19th minute.
The Potters started with a flash as Jacob Brown saw his wayward cross crash against Bettinelli’s upright with just twenty seconds gone.
Steven Fletcher fell to the deck as a corner was whipped in after five minutes , but referee Madley saw no infringement and played on.
Michael O’Neill’s side played with an air of confidence and certainly looked the better side in the opening stages.
Tommy Smith saw his shot hit the side netting on 18 minutes, after Stoke had broken forward well.
Then with their first real chance of the game, Middlesbrough took the lead with 21 minutes gone.
An attack forced a corner, which was allowed to pass through a sea of bodies until Grant Hall was there to poke home at the back post, for his second goal in three games.
It was a lead for the hosts against the run of play, and Stoke had nothing to show for their early domination.
Nick Powell was lucky to come away with a yellow card just minutes later, after a poor tackle left Yannick Bolasie writhing on the floor.
Kebano pounced upon John Obi-Mikel’s wayward pass in his own half, but his shot was unable to trouble Angus Gunn at the near post.
Stoke broke forward quickly once again on the half-hour mark, but a good move culminated in a poor cross by Norrington-Davies, who had Powell and Jacob Brown waiting.
It was all too easy once again for Boro, as the hosts doubled their lead with five minutes of the half left.
Paddy McNair was afforded all the time in the world on the left side to run into the Potters box, and the 25 year-old fired across Gunn into the bottom-right corner to make it 2-0.
Stoke hardly put a foot wrong in the first half, but were punished twice by a ruthless Boro side.
Josh Tymon came on for Jacob Brown at half-time for the visitors.
Stoke started the half well once again, but continued to lack the all-important finishing touches.
Another mistake nearly let Boro in after Gunn’s poor clearance was picked up by McNair 40 yards from goal. The midfield man couldn’t make it a brace though, as his shot went inches wide of the unguarded net.
The game was end-to-end once again, and a goalmouth scramble saw Bettinelli produce a fine save after Powell had flicked a corner goalwards.
A great chance went abegging for the visitors on 64 minutes after Norrington-Davies’ cross caused panic in the Boro box, but Fletcher could not divert a meaningful shot towards goal.
The game lacked big chances as the minutes went by, Marvin Johnson put a good cross in on 70 minutes but nobody in a home shirt was there to meet it.
Stoke had their best opportunity of the game with fifteen minutes left. An inswinging corner was met brilliantly on the volley by Fletcher from six yards out, but Bettinelli produced a great reflex stop to deny the Scot.
Sam Vokes could have troubled the keeper as the game creeped into the last five minutes, but his shot in the box was well blocked by Dael Fry. The resulting corner saw Powell’s header fly over the crossbar.
A quick break from a Stoke free-kick saw Boro wrap up the game on 88 minutes.
The hosts surged forward well after Joe Allen had been dispossessed and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing found himself one-on-one with Gunn, finishing with a delightful chip into the back of the net.
The result flattered Middlesbrough, but Stoke had been nothing short of an embarrassment in defence on three separate occasions.
Joe Allen sought after a consolation for his side with a minute of injury time left, but his shot was deflected onto the side-netting after some good footwork.
FT: Middlesbrough 3-0 Stoke City
MOTM: Paddy McNair
A comprehensive victory for the hosts on the face of it, but Stoke will know that it could have been a different story had they been able to put the ball away.
A horror show in defence allowed Boro to take advantage in the opening 45, and they had effectively won the game at half-time, seeing it out with ease in the second period.
It was all smiles for Neil Warnock at full-time this week, and he will hope the momentum carries his team through to a strong finish to the season.
Stoke will no doubt be building for next season already, after the defeat leaves them 13 points from sixth.
Boro sit ninth, with Preston up next. Stoke sit 11th with a trip to Cardiff on the horizon.
Match report by Oliver Walton.