Marko Arnautovic at the double for Stoke as Middlesbrough fall into bottom three
Middlesbrough dropped into the Premier League relegation zone as Marko Arnautovic's first-half brace condemned them to a 2-0 defeat at Stoke.
Boro fell behind in the 29th minute via a fine strike from Arnautovic, who then added a close-range finish three minutes before half-time.
The Teesside outfit, who are winless in 10 league matches and have failed to score in their last four, are down a place to 18th in the table, with Crystal Palace moving up to 17th and three points clear of them with a 2-0 win at West Brom.
Boro's major problem is hitting the back of the net - they are the lowest scorers in the division, with a tally of just 19 for the season so far.
And while there was a disallowed goal for Ben Gibson in the second half here, Aitor Karanka's side rarely looked like scoring at the Bet365 Stadium - and they might have lost by more, with Ramadan Sobhi hitting the bar early on and having a late header well saved by Victor Valdes.
It was hardly a surprise to hear some booing at the final whistle from the travelling fans, who will be seriously fearful about their team's predicament.
In a bid to aid Boro's problems in attack, Karanka replaced Alvaro Negredo with January signing Rudy Gestede among five changes to the starting XI.
Karanka was then forced to make an early adjustment at the back after the game got under way as Daniel Ayala limped off in the eighth minute, with Bernardo Espinosa coming on.
Stoke almost grabbed the lead six minutes later when a great passing move ended with Sobhi meeting Arnautovic's cross with a shot that came back off the bar.
There was an opportunity for Karanka's men in the 25th minute when Marten de Roon burst into the Stoke box, but his shot was well blocked by Geoff Cameron - and soon after, Boro were a goal down.
Glenn Whelan sent a long ball forward and Arnautovic did excellently to control it, get away from George Friend and past Valdes and fire into the net.
As Boro attempted to make a positive response, captain Grant Leadbitter's strike from outside the area flew narrowly off-target after taking a big deflection.
But three minutes later, they conceded once more, with their defending again questionable. Peter Crouch rose above Bernardo as a corner came in and directed a header towards goal that was hooked in by Arnautovic.
Boro were booed off at the interval, and they began the second half with forward Cristhian Stuani having been introduced for Gaston Ramirez.
They had the ball in the net around the hour mark when Gibson tapped in, but with the flag raised for offside - much to Karanka's dismay - the effort was ruled out.
Arnautovic's impressive display came to an end in the 65th minute as he was forced off by injury, Mame Diouf being sent on in his place.
But Stoke continued to look the more likely side to score for the remainder of the contest, particularly in the 84th minute when Sobhi headed towards the corner and Valdes just managed to get there.