MIDDLESBROUGH made a dream start to the new Championship season as they cruised to a comfortable 2-0 home win over Birmingham City.
Kike, a £2.8m signing from Real Murcia, caught the eye throughout, with his deft control and slick interplay adding a creative dimension to Boro’s attacking play that was missing for much of the season.
The Spaniard’s combination play with Lee Tomlin was especially effective, and with early substitute Kenneth Omeruo looking as composed as ever at the other end, the Teessiders were able to enjoy a deserved opening-day win.
Aitor Karanka named two of his summer signings in his starting line-up – Tomas Mejias and Kike – with Adam Reach also making the side after a strong showing in pre-season.
Jacob Butterfield was a notable absentee from the squad, with the midfielder currently involved in discussions about a possible move to Huddersfield Town.
Karanka would have been looking for a steady start, but instead the Boro head coach found himself rewriting his plans within the opening minute.
Just 15 seconds had gone when Ben Gibson fell awkwardly after tussling for the ball with Wesley Thomas, but the defender was forced to limp off after treatment. Omeruo replaced him, and would probably have been in the starting line-up anyway had he not had an extended break after representing Nigeria at the World Cup.
The early reshuffle didn’t affect Boro too badly though, and the hosts were easily the dominant side throughout the first half.
Tomlin, who was lively throughout, created the opening chance of the game, but fired over from the edge of the area after turning inside his marker.
Birmingham’s first sighter came in the 16th minute, with Demarai Gray drilling a long-range free-kick over the crossbar, but with Tomlin, Kike and Reach combining nicely in attack, Boro continued to look the more dangerous.
Tomlin saw former Newcastle United trainee David Edgar block a goalbound shot inside the area, before Kike came close to opening his account. The £2.8m arrival from Real Murcia held off his marker superbly as he raced on to Tomlin’s through ball in the area, but his first-time effort sailed over from 14 yards.
Tomlin dragged another shot narrowly wide shortly after, but Boro deservedly made a breakthrough with their first goal of the season shortly after the half-hour mark.
Grant Leadbitter swung over a corner from the right, and Ayala found himself completely unmarked as he powered home an eight-yard header.
George Friend mind have added to the hosts’ lead before the break, but after beating two men as he cut in from the left, the full-back scuffed his attempted shot towards the back post.
The second half was a continuation of the first in terms of Boro remaining on the front foot, and Albert Adomah almost doubled his side’s lead within five minutes of the restart.
Kike released the winger behind the Birmingham defence, but his shot was blocked by the legs of Randolph in the Blues goal.
The visitors barely threatened as an attacking force all afternoon, although Thomas should perhaps have done better when he found himself in the inside-left channel, only to scuff a weak shot straight at Tomas Mejias.
That was a rare foray forward for the visitors, whose failure to pick up Ayala from set-pieces all afternoon was a major handicap to them.
The centre-half found himself completely unmarked again in the 57th minute, but while his header enabled Kike to flick the ball towards goal, Randolph again saved well with his legs.
Adomah became the latest Boro player to be frustrated by Randolph’s efforts when his 63rd minute strike was stopped, but the hosts deservedly claimed their second goal three minutes later.
Kike caught the eye all afternoon with a series of neat controls and deft touches, and he claimed the goal his performance merited to open his account in English football.
Tomlin’s goalbound strike was blocked in the area, but Kike reacted quickest to swivel and hook the loose ball into the net.
Moments later, the Spaniard produced an exquisite free-kick routine with Tomlin that left him wide open in the area, but his shot was marginally too close to Randolph.
Middlesbrough (4-2-3-1): Mejias; Hines, Ayala, Gibson (Omeruo 4), Friend; Leadbitter, Whitehead; Adomah (Nsue 67), Tomlin (L Williams 87), Reach; Kike.
Subs (not used): Konstantopoulos (gk), Husband, Omeruo, Fewster, Smallwood.
Birmingham (4-2-3-1): Randolph; Eardley, Hall, Robinson, Grounds; Edgar, Gleeson; Gray, Shinnie (Duffy 55), Novak; Thomas (Donaldson 67).
Subs (not used): Doyle (gk), Gunning, Cotterill, Brown, Caddis.