AITOR KARANKA finds himself with a goalkeeper selection dilemma this weekend, following the departure of Shay Given, who played the last two months for Middlesbrough with some distinction.
But it is not exactly uncharted territory for Karanka - who dealt with a similar situation while on the coaching setup at Real Madrid. But instead of having a choice between Jason Steele, Jayson Leutwiler, Dimi Konstantopoulos and Tomas Mejias, Karanka played a role in dropping Iker Casillas, one of Madrid’s longest-serving players and the Spanish national team’s number one.
Then-Real manager Jose Mourinho dropped Casillas for youth team stopper Antonio Adan in 2012 before signing Diego Lopez the following January, who has kept Casillas out of the side since.
Karanka said of the decision at the time: “We thought a lot about his situation because we knew he was not just any player. We thought he should be performing better. I don’t know if Iker understood why he was benched.”
Dropping Casillas was a statement - no player is safe. Make a mistake, and he will be replaced.
The personnel is different, but, for Karanka, the situation is exactly the same. And, making a tough decision is something that the Middlesbrough manager relishes.
“I am happy with the situation,” said Karanka, ahead of tomorrow’s visit to Sheffield Wednesday in the Championship. “The goalkeepers have been training very well all week.
“I’m not worried. It’s better to have four goalkeepers ready to play and I need to choose the best one for the game.
“It’s tough because they are all training well. I prefer it this way, I prefer to have a difficult decision. I have four in this moment and any one can play.
“It is not usual but it is the situation I have. I have to choose the best one for the team and I don’t want to make a mistake.”
The decision as to who will replace Given - who returned to Aston Villa last week having kept ten clean sheets in his 16 games in a Boro shirt - has not been made yet, and Karanka will wait as long as possible before confirming his choice, following consultation with goalkeeper coach Leo Percovich.
But the player who is picked at Hillsborough will not necessarily be number one from that day forward. One of Karanka’s mottos since taking over as Boro manager is that it is easy to make a mistake and difficult to win your place back - the same maxim applies to the man between the sticks.
“I don’t know [who will play] at the moment, but they’re training well with Leo and we are very happy with all of them,” said Karanka.
“A keeper is a different position. I need to think 100% because he is very important. The goalkeeper that plays on Saturday will have our confidence, but he needs to play well.
“It’s a different position but for me it’s the same. If a player makes a mistake, the next game, he won’t play. If a keeper makes a mistake, I need to be 100% sure in my decision.”
Mejias has not featured on the bench for Boro since making a loan move from Real Madrid Castillo, owing to the limit - five - on the amount of loan players that a club can field in a matchday squad; while Steele has fully recovered from a tendon injury, and both Konstantopoulos and Leutwiler have been biding their time in the wings.
But Karanka, having seen Mejias at close quarters in his Madrid days, is impressed with the talent he has at his disposal.
“Tomas is a big goalkeeper, he takes crosses and deliveries well, he’s very good with his feet,” said Karanka. “He has a lot of experience at Madrid, with the Spanish national team at under-16, 17, 18, and has played in the big games.
“It is a big decision. I know difficult the goalkeeper position is, but all four are training well. Nobody played last month which is a concern. We need to study them well and take the right decision.”