AITOR KARANKA will not be handing a first-team lifeline to Jason Steele despite Middlesbrough’s first-choice goalkeeper, Tomas Mejias, suffering an error-strewn start to the season.
Having erred to allow Leeds striker Billy Sharp to grab a late winner at Elland Road nine days ago, Mejias was at fault again at the weekend as he completely missed the ball to enable Sheffield Wednesday’s Athde Nuhui to open the scoring in his side’s 3-2 win at the Riverside.
The mistakes have raised serious questions about Mejias’ ability to succeed in the Championship, with the 25-year-old having made just one appearance in senior football prior to moving to Teesside on loan in February.
That loan move became a permanent transfer this summer, but Mejias has so far struggled to justify his place in the first team ahead of both Dimi Konstantopoulos, who was Boro’s first-choice goalkeeper in the final two months of last season, and Steele, who has disappeared from the senior picture completely under Karanka.
Konstantopoulos is set to return to the starting line-up for this evening’s Capital One Cup second-round tie with Preston North End, just as he did for the opening tie of the competition at Oldham Athletic earlier this month, but despite Boro’s ongoing goalkeeping difficulties, Steele is extremely unlikely to be part of the squad.
The former England Under-21 international started Karanka’s first game in charge last November, only to be dismissed for a professional foul during a 2-1 defeat to Leeds. An injury prevented him from making an immediate return, and he did not play again until he was recalled for the 4-1 win over Yeovil on the final day of last season.
That was expected to be his swansong as a Boro player, but with less than a week of the transfer window to go, he remains on the Teessiders’ books with no one having made a formal offer for his services.
That could yet change before next Monday’s transfer deadline, but as things stand, Steele remains available for selection, with many supporters regarding the 24-year-old as the most accomplished and reliable goalkeeper at the club.
Karanka does not share that view, and with Mejias and Konstantopoulos effectively sharing goalkeeping duties, there is no imminent possibility of a recall for Steele.
Indeed, were one of Karanaka’s two preferred goalkeepers to suffer a long-term injury, it is understood the Spaniard would look to sign a loan replacement, as was the case last season with Shay Given, rather than offer Steele another first-team opportunity.
Konstantopoulos will not be the only alteration from Saturday’s starting line-up when Boro return to cup competition tonight, with Karanka expected to name a number of the players who proved too good for Oldham a fortnight ago.
James Husband is expected to replace George Friend at left-back, with Luke Williams and Emilio Nsue coming into the midfield.
Preston are one of the form sides in the Football League, having claimed eight points from their first four matches to lie third in League One.
Tonight’s game is of special significance to North End midfielder James Hugill, who was born in Middlesbrough and represented Seaham Red Star, Consett, Whitby Town and Marske United in the Northern League before signing his first professional contract with Port Vale.
“I’m a Middlesbrough fan, so to be playing at the Riverside, hopefully, would be a dream for me,” said Hugill. “After the draw, my phone went mental with texts from all my friends.”
Middlesbrough (4-2-3-1): Konstantopoulos; Hines, Ayala, Omeruo, Husband; Leadbitter, Whitehead; Nsue, L Williams, Reach; Kike.
Preston (4-5-1): Jones; Woods, Clarke, Wright, Laird; King, Little, Humphrey, Brownhill, Hugill; Garner.