Red-hot Matt Crooks inspired Middlesbrough to victory at Birmingham as they charged back into the Championship’s top six.
The midfielder bagged a quickfire second-half double and set up Chuba Akpom’s late clincher as Boro sealed a 3-1 win.
Crooks now has four goals in his last five games with Boro up to fifth in a congested and competitive Championship – having reached the play-off spots for the first time this season last week.
They held off a Birmingham comeback following Tahith Chong’s goal and have won six of their last seven games with boss Michael Carrick guiding Boro from fourth-bottom after his October arrival.
The former Manchester United midfielder’s methods have quickly paid off and they were more cohesive than their hosts, although Akpom’s deflected header was the best they could conjure in the opening 25 minutes.
Inconsistent Birmingham, without the injured Dion Sanderson and Scott Hogan, have exceeded expectations this season with boss John Eustace keeping them away from danger amid a backdrop of off-field issues.
Yet they lacked confidence and intent against Boro who, while they needed to find their own spark, were comfortable at St Andrew’s.
Despite Crooks’ and Akpom’s recent form, it was initially easy to see why Carrick wants another forward in January as they struggled to create and Riley McGree’s weak header was easy for John Ruddy.
Lukas Jutkiewicz fired a dipping 30-yard drive over to rouse the hosts but Boro took control soon after the break.
Ruddy needed to be alert to keep Marcus Forss out after Darragh Lenihan’s deep ball sent him clear yet it barely delayed Boro.
They had found good positions only to be let down by their final ball before Jonny Howson finally produced the perfect cross after 57 minutes for the unmarked Crooks to nod in.
Just 137 seconds later it was 2-0 when former Middlesbrough defender George Friend made an awful mess of clearing a high ball and Crooks ran through to score.
Before the opener Krystian Bielik had planted a free header wide for Birmingham and they pulled a goal back with 16 minutes left when Chong nodded in Auston Trusty’s knockback.
Boro survived Blues’ comeback attempt and added a third with five minutes remaining when Crooks broke and produced the right pass for Akpom to round Ruddy and score his ninth goal in 10 games.
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