Full-time: Middlesbrough 3 Reading 0
THIS might be the time of year when managers bemoan the festive fixture list but Aitor Karanka will not be complaining after watching Middlesbrough claim a third successive victory over the Christmas period.
After 12-months to forget for everyone associated with the the club, at least their Spanish head coach has ensured 2013 ends on a high – and increased hope for the future.
Victories over Millwall and Burnley were followed by an effective 3-0 victory over play-off hopefuls Reading and suddenly a trip to Bolton on New Year's Day is one to relish rather than fear.
For the first time since October last year Middlesbrough have won three league games in a row and, while distancing themselves from the relegation zone, it suddenly does not seem too fanciful to consider a surge towards the top six.
Such a finish in May is still a long shot, although the manner in which Middlesbrough have defeated promotion contenders Reading and Burnley over the last few days hints at significant progress under Karanka.
As soon as Albert Adomah powered Boro ahead in the 13th minute after a lovely counter—attacking move there was no way back for Reading.
The biggest surprise was that it took so long for Grant Leadbitter's 25-yard thunderbolt nine minutes before half-time to be followed up with a third. And all without reply - again.
Eventually it did arrive. Leadbitter smartly drilled in a penalty after the revitalised Emmanuel Ledesma had been brought down in the area in the 83rd minute.
It meant Karanka's decision to rest key defender Jonathan Woodgate was only a foot-note of the afternoon. After the impressive manner in which Burnley's prolific 27-goal forward-line was kept at bay on Boxing Day, it should have been frustrating to be without Woodgate.
But with three games inside a week, resting Woodgate was the best course of action and that created another opening for young defender Ben Gibson to slot in alongside Daniel Ayala. Both combined effectively throughout.
The only other change was the recall of Leadbitter after illness. He appeared alongside Dean Whitehead, with Richie Smallwood the man to make way.
It was the central area of the pitch where Middlesbrough's opener stemmed from. When Jobi McAnuff had miss-controlled a ball in to feet, Middlesbrough moved forward and Jozsef Varga immediately rolled a pass in to the path of Ledesma as he charged down the line.
Ledesma, confident after his best week as a Middlesbrough player, cut back on to his left foot before directing a lovely delivery to the back post. Lukas Jutkiewicz unselfishly nodded down in to the path of Adomah and the Ghanaian struck powerfully, low inside the far corner from just inside the box.
Before that 13th minute goal there had been little between the two teams but as soon as it crossed the line Middlesbrough were full of vigour going forward and could have been more than two goals up before the break.
There were moments when fans were reminded of goalkeeper Shay Given's quality. Most notably when chants of “sign him up” followed a crucial stop when McAnuff had conjured up a clear shot on goal by rounding a couple of red shirts.
In the main though, the goalkeeper on loan from Aston Villa until January 2 looked on from his area at some exciting attacking play at the opposite end.
Shortly after Adomah's strike, Ledesma went close with a free-kick which was parried and then Jutkiewicz found the side-netting with the rebound.
Ledesma also curled a fine effort from 25 yards which skimmed the top of the net before a couple of chances which Middlesbrough should really have converted in a short space of time.
When Marvin Emnes beat his man and unleashed a thundering drive, goalkeeper Alex McCarthy got down to his left to parry. Leadbitter headed a second effort from 12 yards which was then fumbled but Reading looked as if they had cleared.
The ball soon worked its way back in from the Reading left to Emnes. The Dutchman created space for himself before seeing McCarthy deny him for a second time with a diving stop.
Middlesbrough fans did not have to wait too much longer for the second. It never looked on when Ledesma rolled a pass in to the feet of Leadbitter.
But the former Sunderland man, 25 yards out, moved the ball from under his feet and unleashed a sublime right-footed finish which floated inside McCarthy's left hand post.
At that stage Middlesbrough had moved to within six points of the play-offs and, for the second game in a row, it was the sort of performance which suggested Karanka has every right to still be dreaming of a late top six push.
Reading looked brighter after the restart, but their hopes of getting back in to game were made even more difficult when defender Gorkss was red carded seven minutes in.
Gorkss, already on a yellow for a first half foul on Jutkiewicz, stupidly slid in and wiped out Ledesma, rightly earning a second caution and an early exit.
Initially that only seemed to put Middlesbrough on the back foot, but they soon regained their composure and controlled the remaining third of the match without ever testing McCarthy too much.
The Royals did threaten Given's box occasionally, but there were plenty times when Middlesbrough passed the ball around between themselves. Out of possession, the red shirts tended to thwart the blue and white hoops.
A third did eventually arrive when Alex Pearce forced Ledesma to the floor in the box. Leadbitter sent McCarthy the wrong way to grab his sixth goal of the season to wrap things up.