WHEN Aitor Karanka took charge of Middlesbrough in November of 2013, the Spaniard inherited a side five points off the bottom three of the Championship with only three wins to its name.
Transformation under Karanka has been a slow process. The defensive errors that plagued Tony Mowbray’s final weeks in charge were slowly ironed out, but with that the goals dried up also.
But, as time passed, the goals started flowing while the defence held firm, which has fostered a real belief that, at the tail end of this topsy-turvy season, Middlesbrough could still qualify for the play-offs.
Inside the club, they have not spoken about it. It has been dismissed as a flight of fancy. All they can do, it was said, is win games and que sera, sera.
So should victory at Burnley – completing the double over the promotion-chasing Clarets – be treated as the moment a Middlesbrough push for the play-offs should be taken seriously, or is it simply a sign of a team wishing to end the season on a high and take that momentum into what will be Karanka’s first full season on Teesside?
Grant Leadbitter nips in front of Burnley right-back Kieran Trippier
Three weeks ago, the mere thought of the top six was a ridiculous notion for Boro. They have been as much as 12 points off the top six recently, but a winning run that started at Brighton on March 29 and continued with a 1-0 win at Turf Moor has seen that gap chopped down to six. With a decent goal difference and Reading to play before the end of the season, it could be Boro who sneak into that final spot.
Danny Graham, after the Brighton match, opined that “crazier things have happened” – that is the beauty of the Championship.
Karanka is nothing but pragmatic, though. His spell on Teesside has revealed little insight to the man that assisted Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid for three years.
He had – as recently as a fortnight ago – spoken about the reluctance to stray away from his trusted 4-2-3-1 formation, saying “I do not experiment. Experiments are not for this league”.
So it was perhaps a surprise to see a Karanka side line up in a hitherto unfamiliar 3-5-2 at Turf Moor. But his reasoning for the change was not a shake of the dice, for him it seemed an easy decision. George Friend, Boro’s left-back, was injured; Ben Gibson and Kenneth Omeruo, centre-halves, were suspended.
“We needed to solve a problem,” said Karanka, after Jacob Butterfield gave Boro the win with a 51st minute goal. “We had these players and I felt this was the best shape for them.
“After 60-70 minutes I needed to change back to the 4-2-3-1 because they were attacking a lot. I’m pleased 85-90% of the time with my players because they have played well since I came here. They did everything I asked them to before the game, which makes it easier for me.
“I’m very proud of my players. We came from ending the last game with nine players, injuries, players who have been out for two or three months like Dani and Woody, and we played very well. For this I am very happy, and this is the second time we have beaten Burnley.
“The most important thing is to win. We are winning in different ways, so I am happy. When I came here we were conceding goals in the last minute, but now we have won four games in a row. We need to enjoy this week now.”
Danny Graham is outjumped by Jason Shackell
Burnley’s season, meanwhile, seems a foregone conclusion at this point. The Clarets had to win – and Derby County had to fail to victor – in order for their ascension back to the Premier League to be confirmed, but Boro did not read the script, with Butterfield’s goal from a counter-attack the only difference between the two sides.
Dimi Konstantopoulos saved a succession of Claret chances in the final 20 minutes of the game as Boro’s winning run reached a fourth game.
The message from Middlesbrough this week was that the Teessiders were set on spoiling the Burnley party. There was, indeed, nothing to suggest that Boro would be a pushover. Seeking a fourth successive victory, the momentum and confidence has been building up something of a head of steam of late.
But the visitors came under some considerable pressure from Sean Dyche’s side, with Ashley Barnes’ effort being scrambled away on 16 minutes, and Danny Ings volleying over after Kieran Trippier found the former Brighton striker unmarked.
Michael Kightly hit the post with a looping header after Scott Arfield’s shot was blocked by Dean Whitehead, while Ings’ shot from Dean Marney’s clever pass was saved well by Konstantopoulos.
In light of Boro’s defensive mini-crisis, owing to the suspension of Ben Gibson and Kenneth Omeruo after their respective red cards against Birmingham City, and the injury to George Friend, Aitor Karanka lined his side up in an unfamiliar 3-5-2 formation, which took time to settle.
But going forward, the visitors looked sharp, and Danny Graham volleyed acrobatically over the bar from Albert Adomah’s cross on the half-hour, before the on-loan Sunderland striker had a crack from 25 yards out, forcing a smart save by Tom Heaton in the Burnley goal.
Butterfield had a similar effort pawed away by the Clarets keeper, before Emmanuel Ledesma fired wide from the edge of the penalty area.
Burnley’s first half profligacy was punished five minutes after the restart when Tomlin surged forward after Albert Adomah had twice denied the Clarets in the area. The former Peterborough attacker held off two defenders before finding Butterfield, who creamed his shot high past Heaton. Project Party Pooper was on.
Burnley striker Danny Ings misses a chance
The hosts rallied, but Boro’s defence – the meanest in the Championship since Karanka took charge – held firm. Ings scuffed a shot wide on the hour mark, as the 900 travelling fans poured scorn on the Claret promotion push.
Konstantopoulos was on his toes on 67 minutes to save Barnes’ header from Michael Duff’s left-sided cross, before making a similarly impressive stop from Trippier’s direct free-kick moments later.
The Greek goalkeeper was yet again called into action, again from a dead ball, when he tipped David Jones’ free-kick over the crossbar with ten minutes left on the clock.
Substitute Junior Stanislas, whose goal for West Ham in 2009 relegated the Teessiders from the Premier League, cracked a goalbound shot from distance on 84 minutes, but Konstantopoulos parried it away, while Barnes sliced the rebound wide.
Jonathan Woodgate gave Boro a scare when he miskicked on the line, but the ball dropped the other side of the post, before Konstantopoulos again denied the Clarets, this time from substitute Ross Wallace.
Grant Leadbitter blocked Michael Duff’s shot off the line as the corners rained in, before Boro’s Dani Ayala was sent off deep into stoppage time for his second bookable offence.
That sending-off – Boro’s third in the space of two games – leaves Karanka with yet another defensive headache as Ayala will now miss two matches as it is his second dismissal of the season; Gibson has another game to serve and Friend’s fitness is not certain ahead of their next game against Millwall on Saturday.
For Karanka, the late dismissal was a sour note on which to end a good day.
“It was a mistake by Dani,” said Karanka. “We don’t have many players, he is coming back from a long-term injury. He needs to learn from it because he’s out for two games now.
Daniel Ayala tries to block this effort from Michael Kightly
“We played with intensity and character, without playing well. Against a team like Burnley, I’m pleased we won.
“We knew how difficult it would be. They dictated the tempo of the game, but we said at half-time that we could score a goal, and we did that.”