TWO games, two wins and two clean sheets into the bargain. When Aitor Karanka imagined his dream start to his first full season as Middlesbrough manager, it probably went something like this.
Three days after seeing off Birmingham City in their opening Championship fixture, Boro were even more comprehensive winners as they outclassed lower-league Oldham Athletic to reach the second round of the Capital One Cup.
Luke Williams’ long-range pile-driver ensured the Teessiders’ first-half dominance would not go unrewarded, with Grant Leadbitter’s clinical strike at the start of the second half providing some welcome breathing space.
Having made a stellar start to his Boro career on Saturday, Kike came off the bench to claim his second goal since his summer move from Real Murcia and by the end, it was simply a question of how many Aitor Karanka’s side would score, such was the extent of their superiority.
Oldham never threatened to cause an upset, and having blooded two or three youngsters, Karanka can be happy with the growing depth of the squad that is at his disposal. Throw in Damia Abella, Adam Clayton and potentially another centre-forward, and you have the makings of a unit that could be in for an exciting season.
They can certainly look forward to more action in the League Cup, and having opted to make six changes from the side that beat Birmingham on Saturday, Karanka will have left Oldham content that he got the blend exactly right.
There was a solidity to the spine of the side, with skipper Jonathan Woodgate returning to provide ample experience, but also a healthy smattering of youth and new faces. Emilio Nsue made his first start in Boro colours, although probably wasn’t as effective as he would have liked, while there were senior debuts for full-back James Husband, who moved from Doncaster in the summer, and striker Bradley Fewster, an England under-18 international who scored four goals in pre-season.
Last season, Boro suffered an embarrassing defeat to lowly Accrington Stanley at the same stage of the League Cup, and while Karanka was not in charge at the time, the Spaniard cited the result in the build-up to last night’s game in an attempt to guard against complacency. Twelve months on, and there was never even the slightest hint of a repeat.
This is not a Boro squad built to impose its physicality on the game, but there are other ways to assume the ascendancy, and from the outset, the Teessiders dominated in terms of possession and ball retention.
With Leadbitter and Dean Whitehead running things from the base of midfield, there was ample opportunity for Nsue, Williams and Adam Reach to push forward to support Fewster in attack. As a result, there was a fluency to Boro’s attacking that asked immediate questions of the Oldham defence.
That said, Boro’s first chance came from a set-piece, an avenue that was also productive against Birmingham at the weekend, although Woodgate could only head Reach’s delivery over the crossbar.
Reach’s incisive surges down the left-hand side were a major part of the Teessiders’ attacking threat all night, but if there was a weakness to their play, it was the lack of an obvious focal point at the apex of the attack.
Fewster, a Middlesbrough-born 18-year-old, is highly regarded within the Rockliffe Park training set-up, but posited against the mountainous George Elokobi, the teenager found himself all too easily muscled out of things. At this stage of his career, a Football League loan spell could work wonders.
He still had a hand in Boro’s opener though, albeit a fairly minor one. Laying the ball off to Williams, Fewster cannot have expected to have been teeing up a goal. There appeared to be little on as Williams received possession, but from 30 yards out, the midfielder arrowed a sensational drive that flew into the top left-hand corner of the net. It is not yet the middle of August, but we already have a strong contender for Boro’s Goal of the Season.
Williams was also involved in the visitors’ second, a goal that effectively put the game to bed within three minutes of the restart.
His quick throw in released an onrushing Reach into the area, and after the winger pulled the ball back from close to the byline, Leadbitter calmly stroked a side-footed finish low into the corner. It was a crisp strike from a player who has started the season in an assured manner.
Reach departed shortly after, and given Boro’s two-goal cushion, it was somewhat surprising to see Kike being thrown into the fray. Three minutes later, however, and the wisdom of the Spaniard’s introduction was fully apparent.
The striker was the toast of Teesside after his debut goal against Birmingham, and his race towards cult status was enhanced further when he doubled his seasonal tally last night.
He already gives the impression of being a predatory presence in the penalty area, and after shuffling the ball onto his right foot, there was much to admire in the precise curled finish that found the net via the base of the right-hand upright.
He almost scored again in the closing stages, but after pulling into space in the right-hand side of the area, his drilled finish flew narrowly over the crossbar.