THE first goal in a Middlesbrough shirt from Jordan Rhodes proved enough to take Aitor Karanka’s side back to the top of the Championship.
Rhodes headed home in the 93rd minute to secure Boro a 1-1 draw against an MK Dons side who had taken the lead early in the contest.
Boro started brightly enough, Gaston Ramirez was an early threat with the first shot of the game and, moments later, David Nugent almost capitalised on a poor backpass to steal in and give Karanka’s side the lead.
But it was MK who took the lead inside the opening 10 minutes with their first attack of the game. The home side played a long ball forward, and Dean Bowditch controlled and turned before drilling the ball home from the edge of the box.
Boro almost responded immediately when Nugent looked to play in Stuani, but the Uruguayan, coming in from the right, was denied by the legs of David Martin.
The early goal allowed the home side to defend deeper and at times the first half resembled a typical Riverside fixture with Boro being invited to break down some dogged opponents, whose only route forward came courtesy of long balls.
The Dons defensive organisation hasn’t been their strong point this season, but they were compact and kept men behind the ball to frustrate Boro.
Grant Leadbitter picked out Stuani whose intelligent cross was cleared to safety by a Dons defender and while Boro maintained a good level of pressure that saw balls into the box from both Stewart Downing and Emilio Nsue cleared, the hosts worked hard to restrict Boro as a threat.
Downing tried his luck shortly before half-time with a sweet strike that went just over the bar, and Leadbitter had a shot deflected wide, but the opening 45 minutes proved frustrating for the visitors.
Half-time: MK Dons 1 Middlesbrough 1
Karanka resisted any temptation to make changes at half-time, and it was the home side who started the second half on the front foot, testing Dimi Konstantopoulos, and winning back-to-back corners.
But it was Boro who had a great chance to level on 51 minutes when Nugent’s perseverance forced some sloppy defending, but the striker squandered the chance by firing wide of the mark with only Martin to beat.
The chance rallied Boro and moments later Ritchie de Laet had an effort cleared off the line before the on loan defender then sent a first time strike over the bar after a Downing cross. More crosses were delivered into the box, but MK again made some vital clearances, and when they broke Jay Emmanuel-Thomas was denied by a great Adam Forshaw challenge.
As the game headed towards the 70-minute mark, Karanka made a double change, introducing Jordan Rhodes and Carlos de Pena to proceedings as Boro looked to step up the hunt for a route back into the contest.
MK goalkeeper Martin wasn’t tested again in the 80th minute, though, when Leadbitter stooped well to meet an Nsue cross, and moments later he was called from his line to collect a Downing cross.
But the home side weren’t done either and twice they escaped down the flanks, breaking quickly, only to be denied inside the box, first by Ben Gibson and the second time by a cross which had too much on it and zipped back across goal.
Konstantopoulos was also called upon to tip over a goalbound strike from MK sub Nicky Maynard as the game entered the 90th minute.
Four minutes of added time gave Boro hope and Jordan Rhodes duly delivered with his first goal for the club when he headed home to prompt delirium among the magnificent travelling support housed high above the goal.
Scorers Bowditch 10, Rhodes 90+3
MK Dons: Martin; Baldock, McFadzean, Walsh, Lewington, Walsh, Forster-Caskey, Emmanuel-Thomas (Potter 62), Carruthers, Bowditch (Maynard 69), Revell (Spence 84). Subs: Cropper (gk), Powell, Hall, Williams.
Middlesbrough: Konstantopoulos; Nsue, Kalas, Gibson, De Laet, Forshaw (Rhodes 68), Leadbitter (Capt.), Stuani (De Pena 69), Ramirez (Kike Sola 84), Downing, Nugent. Subs: Mejias (gk); Clayton, De Sart, Fry.
Referee Andrew Davies, Hampshire
MK Dons Forster-Caskey 49, foul.
Boro: Nugent 33, foul.
Attendance 11,256 (2,302 Boro)
Possession MK Dons 35% Middlesbrough 65%