AITOR KARANKA is in the fortunate position of having three talented goalkeepers on his books – but in the eyes of many Middlesbrough supporters, the Spanish head coach is backing the least reliable of the trio as his number one.
Karanka went out of his way to support Tomas Mejias at the weekend after the former Real Madrid reserve followed up his costly error against Leeds United with an even more calamitous howler against Sheffield Wednesday.
Despite Mejias looking nervous and hesitant whenever a ball was delivered into the area, Karanka insisted the 25-year-old was “big enough and strong enough” to succeed in the Championship.
Perhaps he is, but having been sidelined for most of last season’s loan spell because of injury, it is undeniable that the Spaniard is taking time to acclimatise to life in English football’s second tier.
The fans have spotted his troubles – hence the sarcastic cheers every time his Capital One Cup replacement, Dimi Konstantopoulos, caught the ball against Preston on Tuesday night – so you can bet Boro’s opponents have identified a potential weakness too. Expect Reading to put plenty of physical pressure on Mejias whenever they have a set-piece at the weekend.
If there was a lack of alternatives, you could understand Karanka’s desire to protect Mejias and continue to display complete faith in his compatriot.
But in Konstantopoulos, Boro possess a more than able deputy, as evidenced by the Greek shot-stopper’s performances in the second half of last season.
Barring one error when he failed to deal with a back-pass, Konstantopoulos was a reliable presence after Shay Given’s loan spell expired last term, and the former Hartlepool man can count himself unlucky to have been demoted to the position of number two in the summer. Having watched Mejias’ performances so far this season, he will have even more cause for complaint if, as expected, he is back on the bench on Saturday.
Then of course there is Jason Steele, the former England Under-21 international who was rated the brightest goalkeeping prospect in the Football League a couple of seasons ago, but who now finds himself frozen out of the first-team picture entirely and not even making the bench.
The presence of Konstantopoulos and Steele means Karanka has options, and while there is plenty to be said for sticking by a player when he is going through a tough time, the Boro boss cannot allow stubbornness or a misguided sense of loyalty to prevent him from changing direction if necessary.
The season is still in its infancy, and Mejias could yet come good. Boro cannot afford to wait forever though, and if things do not improve in the next couple of matches, Karanka has to be brave and ruthless enough to admit one of his key summer signings could perhaps do with a spell out of the firing line.