Middlesbrough 4 Watford 1
Middlesbrough all but ended their fears of being dragged into the Barclays Premiership relegation scrap by further consigning Watford to the drop.
Mark Viduka’s fifth-minute opener, his 13th goal of the season, got the Teessiders off to the perfect start, but it took another expert finish from the Australian 15 minutes from time to seal a first victory in four games for Gareth Southgate’s men.
In the meantime, Damien Francis’ 22nd-minute volley dragged the Hornets back into the game, but after George Boateng’s shot hit team-mate Chris Riggott and looped into the net, there was only likely to be one winner.
Indeed, had it not been for the excellence of Watford keeper Ben Foster the visitors might have lost even more heavily, although even he could not prevent Fabio Rochemback for completing the job after 79 minutes.
The thousands of empty seats at the Riverside Stadium – the game was watched by a crowd of just 25,534 – told the story of a disappointing season for the Teessiders, but those who stayed away missed an entertaining encounter.
Boro, who had drastically under-achieved in their last home game against Manchester City and again at relegation-haunted West Ham last weekend, produced more of a goal threat in the opening 45 minutes than they had during the previous two games.
That was due in large part to the introduction of winger Adam Johnson, who lined up on the right with England midfielder Stewart Downing occupying the other flank.
The two wide men gave full-backs Jordan Stewart and James Chambers a tough time as they provided some genuine service to strikers Viduka and Ayegbeni Yakubu.
Indeed, it was they who linked to superb effect to provide the Australian with the opening goal just five minutes after kick-off.
Johnson cut inside to deliver a teasing left-foot cross to the far post, and Downing rose unopposed to nod the ball down for Viduka, who thumped it past helpless Foster.
It could hardly have been a worse start for Adrian Boothroyd’s men, but to their credit, they worked their way back into the game and were level after 22 minutes.
Defender Danny Shittu headed a long ball back across goal and Francis thumped a volley into the roof of the net to give the travelling fans some hope.
However, their joy lasted only three minutes, and there was an element of fortune about Boro’s second goal.
Johnson’s trickery allowed him to find Boateng, whose shot clipped Riggott’s heels and ballooned past Foster.
Yakubu wasted a glorious opportunity to make it 3-1 five minutes before the break and Foster kept out a Viduka drive seconds later, as the Teessiders could not make the most of their dominance.
The Hornets were still very much in the game, but the cutting edge they have lacked all season was once again proving their downfall.
Boothroyd, who had earlier been forced to replace injured striker Darius Henderson with Hameur Bouazza, made a second change at the break when combative midfielder Gavin Mahon failed to re-appear and Tamas Priskin took his place.
But as they had before the break, his defenders simply could not cope with Johnson and Downing, the former feeding the latter to drill in a 47th-minute shot which Foster did well to claim with red shirts waiting to pounce on any rebound.
The England international kept his side in it seven minutes later after Boro had staged a blistering counter-attack from the most unlikely of sources.
Right-back Abel Xavier picked up possession on halfway and surged forward before sliding a superb pass into Yakubu’s run, although the keeper got down well to turn the striker’s shot around the post.
However, Boro were turning the screw and might have increased their lead three times inside as many minutes.
First Yakubu saw a close-range effort deflected over by Chambers’ desperate lunge and then Viduka had strong appeals for a penalty waved away after appearing to have his shirt pulled as he turned towards goal.
But it was Foster who denied the Teessiders once again after 58 minutes when he pulled off a fine one-handed save to keep out Yakubu’s shot and then recovered to block Rochemback’s follow-up.
Watford rallied briefly and Steve Kabba should really have levelled again after 63 minutes, but headed Stewart’s cross straight at Mark Schwarzer.
Foster remained the busier of the two keepers, but even he could not keep out Boro single-handed as Viduka helped himself to a second with a calm finish 15 minutes from time before setting up Rochemback to complete the rout four minutes later.