0-1, Djuric, min. 13. 1-1, Friend, min 18. Ayala, min. 68
Middlesbrough 2-1 Bristol City: Ayala header keeps Boro's fate in their own hands

Middlesbrough 2-1 Bristol City: Ayala header keeps Boro's fate in their own hands

The defender scored his third goal in as many games to move Tony Pulis' side back into the Championship play-off places,

Joe Nicholson

Daniel Ayala's thumping header helped Middlesbrough move back into the Championship play-off places after beating promotion rivals Bristol City at the Riverside.

The defender's winner midway through the second half was his third in as many games and ensured Boro came from behind to win for just the second time under Tony Pulis.

City's lead lasted just five minutes after Milan Djuric's opener was cancelled out by George Friend's header.

The game had to be stopped for around seven minutes while Boro forward Patrick Bamford received treatment after he appeared to be knocked unconscious in the first half.

City are now four points adrift of sixth place with three games to play.



Few changes for either side

Despite a busy Championship schedule, Pulis has maintained a settled side since his arrival at the Riverside in December.

The Boro boss made just one alteration following his sides 2-1 defeat at Sheffield United on Tuesday, as the suspended Grant Leadbitter, who received a red card at Bramall Lane, making way for Adam Clayton.

City manager Lee Johnson has also kept changes to a minimum this season, with injuries playing a factor.

Even so, a surprising switch to a 4-4-2 formation helped the Robins claim a much-needed victory over Birmingham last time out, and Johnson named the same starting line-up for the trip to the Riverside.

That meant top scorer Bobby Reid remained on the left, with Djuric and Famara Diedhiou starting in attack.



Boro respond after falling behind

It was Reid's cross from the flank which led to the opening goal on 13 minutes when Muhamed Besic allowed the ball to bounce on the edge of the Boro penalty area before Marlon Pack charged in and headed the ball towards goal.

Inside the area, Djuric reacted the quickest, muscling his way between Friend and Daniel Ayala before stabbing the ball past Darren Randolph.

Before the game Pulis urged his players to embrace the occasion and rather feeling sorry for themselves, the hosts hit back with a valuable equalizer five minutes after falling behind.

It came from an unlikely source when Friend's glancing header from an Adama Traore corner sparked the home crowd into life.

However, the mood soon turned to concern after Bamford appeared to be knocked stone cold after going in for a challenge with Aden Flint.



Concern around the Riverside after Bamford injury

The Boro striker lay flat on the ground for about seven minutes and appeared to receive oxygen before he was taken off on a stretcher. Britt Assombalonga took his place.

That resulted in a lengthy period of stoppage time and as the board was brought out to show eleven added minutes at the end of the first half, Boro almost edged ahead.

Adama Traore's low cross from the right picked out Stewart Downing, whose shot cannoned back off Assombalonga. 

The rebound fell to Besic who also tried his luck but was thwarted by Josh Brownhill.

Boro carried their momentum into the second half, dominating possession without creating many clear-cut chances.

Traore continued to look like the hosts' best route to goal, setting up Assombalonga on 52 minutes who chipped the ball over the crossbar.

The Boro striker registered a better effort eight minutes later when he headed Ayala's cross inches wide.

But for all Boro's possession, the visitors almost landed a decisive sucker punch on 63 minutes, after Ryan Shotton was dispossessed inside his own half.

As the visitors flooded forward, the ball fell at the feet of Reid, who picked out Brownhill with a low cross, however, the latter's strike was blocked by Friend.



Ayala heads home the winner

In a game of fine margins, Boro took the lead five minutes later when another Traore corner was turned home, this time by a powerful header from Ayala.

City's best chance to equalize came in stoppage time when Reid fired over following Flint's knockdown.

However, the hosts held on, meaning their play-off hopes remain in their own hands.