WHEN Middlesbrough line up against Brighton and Hove Albion this afternoon, Aitor Karanka will be reminded of his lowest point as manager to date.
For it was against the Seagulls, in December, that Karanka’s Middlesbrough conceded a late goal to see all three points head south - the third consecutive game where Boro had shipped late goals.
And while Karanka denied he was angry that day, he does agree that it was a turning point for the club’s fortunes, a Ground Zero from which to build.
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Since that defeat, Boro’s defensive problems - largely inherited from the end of Tony Mowbray’s reign - have been resolved. A resolute unit at the back, Karanka’s side have conceded 12 goals in the games following the Brighton loss, keeping 11 clean sheets in 18 games.
“After that game, it was my worst day here,” said Karanka ahead of today’s trip to Brighton’s Amex Stadium. “We could see the improvement in my players. We didn’t win the game and for this it was a difficult day for me. The team changed after that. The mentality changed, the character changed, and it was important for us.
“I think that game was very important for us. From that day, we changed a lot of things. We went one month and only lost once in the league. For this, I think that game was important for us to see how difficult it is to win. I have good memories about that game because of what we did after.
“That day, I wasn’t angry. The team deserved to win the game. I was disappointed, I was concerned, because we played well against Brighton, against Derby, against Birmingham. I was disappointed because we deserved to win, not because of the performance.
“I will be angry always when my team don’t do everything to win the games, like against Doncaster Rovers, like against Watford. But when my team put everything on the pitch like against Huddersfield, or at home to Forest, QPR and Leeds, I will be happy with my team.”
Matthew Upson scored the 86th minute winner against Boro back in December, and Karanka feels that despite Boro’s inferior league position, they can give a good account of themselves in Sussex today.
“Of course we can compete. I am sure because we competed with them at home,” said Karanka, who played with Albion manager Oscar Garcia in the Spain side at the Olympics in 1996. “We lost the game in the last five minutes from a corner, but I believe we can beat any team in this league. Normally, we are better against the better teams in the league.
“Brighton have a good team. It’s a team that play like their manager, they share his character and philosophy, and for this it’s important they do that. It will be a difficult game for us, but one we will go to win.
“I played in the national team with him, we’re very good friends. I haven’t spoken to him this week though. I’ve been preparing my team so concentrating on that with my staff.”
Before Tuesday’s 2-2 draw at Huddersfield Town, Boro had not scored an away goal since January, and Karanka was pleased that his side have finally broken that duck - doubly so that Albert Adomah, Boro’s winger, got back to scoring ways at the John Smith’s Stadium.
“It’s important for the confidence,” said Karanka. “Important for Albert too. He played well. It’s good for the team too. We need to keep working in that way. We defend well now, and now we score goals. That’s important for the team.”