Barnsley maintained their Championship play-off challenge with a hard-earned home victory over Middlesbrough, as second-half Alex Mowatt and Daryl Dike goals moved them five points ahead of seventh-placed Reading with as many matches left to play.
They laboured in the first half but found an extra gear after the break to end a three-match winless run at Oakwell, with Mowatt celebrating his March Player of the Month award by scoring directly from a corner before Dike nodded in his eighth goal in 11 matches to secure the win.
Barnsley remain fifth but have a healthier cushion following Reading’s defeat at Watford the previous night, while any faint hopes of a Middlesbrough push were ended with a fourth consecutive away defeat which leaves them 11 points short of the top six.
Story of the match
Middlesbrough were always going to be more than up for the attritional battle that Barnsley make every match, and they were happy to indulge in Barnsley’s style. After Paddy McNair kept out Dominik Frieser and in-form Dike blasted into the stand early, Boro had the best chance of the first half with their only effort of it, with Toby Sibbick a relieved man after an ill-advised header back towards his goal was picked up by George Saville only for a tame header to be held by Brad Collins.
There were few chances despite the end-to-end play, with the hosts only putting more pressure on as the break approached. Cauley Woodrow and Mowatt skied efforts and Saville was next to stand in the way of Frieser, while Marcus Bettinelli’s only real save of the half saw him dive low to keep out a Michal Helik strike which had seen some of the sting taken out of it by McNair.
Middlesbrough emerged brighter in the second half but chances were still hard to come by, with McNair and Duncan Watmore delivering teasing crosses that should have been converted before another McNair ball was headed straight at Collins by defensive partner Grant Hall.
Barnsley offered little indication of finding a goal until it came out of the blue from Mowatt just past the hour. The skipper makes a habit of testing goalkeepers from corners – they were controversially denied a late winner against Reading last week from such a move – and this time it worked to perfection as Bettinelli's poor positioning saw him stuck in his own goal as the set-piece squeezed past at his near post.
With the lead, the hosts were now in control. They were up in arms when Dike was appeared to be cleared out by the increasingly jittery Bettinelli without punishment, but they kept pushing and Mowatt almost followed his goal with a direct free-kick delivery from out wide, the goalkeeper managing to push away before keeping out Callum Styles’ deflected effort.
But the Fulham loanee would be beaten again as the clock wound down, with Dike following Mowatt in making it eight goals for the season. The captain started it with a poor volley into the ground which presented a great chance for Carlton Morris, but the substitute’s tame header was kept out. Darnell Fisher’s clearance only went to Callum Brittain, however, and he returned the ball for Dike to nod in at the back post.
The American could have had another as a now utterly dominant Barnsley looked for more in the closing stages, but he had two late blasts deflected wide as the win was eventually seen out with a degree of comfort.
Tykes find extra gear again
It has become a recurring theme since the turn of the year to see Barnsley turn an indifferent first-half performance into three points with effective substitutions, bringing fresh energy and impetus as well as a tweaked approach from the bench.
That was the case once more here, with Morris and Conor Chaplin providing new life up front and Aapo Halme physically dominating in midfield in the final half-hour, as Barnsley again found a way to win a match that was not necessarily always there for the taking.
It has been one of the key ingredients to their remarkable run, which has seen them lose just one of the past 16 Championship contests, with their work in the January transfer window creating a deeper squad. The best addition has been Dike, whose all-round work was outstanding once more in this game.
Reading’s defeat puts them in a great position to secure a top-six spot, though their work is far from done yet. While Brentford, Swansea City and Bournemouth all recorded impressive victories at the same time, Barnsley will be just as difficult to figure out and defeat should they make the play-offs.
Plenty for Boro to ponder
Middlesbrough’s play-off push was over before the trip to Oakwell, but a top-half finish is still very much on the cards and would represent a relative success compared to the struggles of last term.
Thoughts appear to have moved to next season, when a stronger challenge will be expected. There will be some change over the summer with players on the way out and new signings sure to come in, and these final matches of this campaign are an opportunity for the current crop to prove their worth going forward.
Some players are very much in favour. McNair has been immense this season and his partnership with Hall at the back was one of the positive aspects here, standing up well to the highly intense threat of Barnsley and demonstrating the kind of battle-hardiness that is required in this division, while Jonny Howson showed great energy to stand up to the challenge in a different way in midfield.
Up front, things look less promising. Chuba Akpom and Neeskens Kebano were barely present, while Djed Spence is surely not the long-term solution as a winger. Britt Assombalonga, Ashley Fletcher and Yannick Bolasie all came off the bench together midway through the second half, but none are expected to be at the Riverside next season. At the other end, things are uncertain for Bettinelli too, and the goalkeeper did himself no favours with this performance.
Man of the match - Daryl Dike (Barnsley)
Another brilliant performance from the on-loan striker, who is turning out to be one of the finds of the Championship season. Dike battled relentlessly up front when Barnsley were struggling, and got the reward with another goal to see them home.