It was with a sense of excitement and intrigue that Middlesbrough fans welcomed former Real Madrid defender Aitor Karanka to the club as manager almost five months ago. Under club legend Tony Mowbray, Boro were slumping down the table, struggling to score goals and having extreme difficulty keeping them out; so what has this Champions League-winning Mourinho protégé managed to achieve in his short stint at the club? Sam France investigates…
When Karanka made his home debut as manager amid a flurry or scarlet Spanish ‘karankachiefs’, you could be forgiven for thinking nothing had changed. A drab 1-0 victory over Bolton courtesy of a penalty (and one missed by the away side) was hardly setting pulses racing – at least, not in the same way that interim manager Mark Venus’ swashbuckling 4-0 rout of Doncaster did. However, in the matches that followed, a clear pattern was set up, as Boro did the unthinkable and stopped conceding stupid goals. Much of this was put down to the inspired emergency loan signing of former Newcastle and Sunderland goalkeeper Shay Given, and it would be wrong to take this away from him – some of his performances were truly superb. But, since the Irishman was forced to return to Aston Villa at the expiration of his loan deal, Boro’s superb defensive record has continued with Dimi Konstantopolous and Tomas Mejias between the sticks. Since Karanka took the helm, only three sides have scored against Boro in the league at the Riverside, and one of those was an extremely questionable tap-in from Darius Henderson’s fist.
With a Champions League winning defender at the helm, that might be a side effect that you would expect, but the goals have dried up at the other end as well. After a few outstanding counter-attacking victories, Karanka started to feel the strain from injuries and had to fiddle with the side, a move which left Boro without any fluency or vigour in attack. It took twelve, yes TWELVE hours and fourteen minutes for Boro to finally break their duck against Ipswich Town, with returning striker Danny Graham bagging a brace (yes, really). More frustratingly, Lukas Jutkiewicz is enjoying the form of his life having left for Bolton on loan in January, though Marvin Emnes has barely made contact with the pitch in his time at Swansea. Mustapha Carayol has been the one truly bright spark in attack this season, scoring goals and creating them from the left wing, but he embarrassed one full-back too many and has seen his season ended by a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament. Boro need some inspiration.
If there is one thing that really set Teesside tongues wagging upon Karanka’s arrival to the club, it was his transfer window contacts – the club has spent the last 18 months building up ties with clubs such as Atletico Madrid, Juventus and many in Eastern Europe, but Karanka’s arrival has introduced contacts with Real Madrid and Chelsea; according to The Times, Jose Mourinho’s first question in a recent press conference was ‘what was the Boro score?’ Boro made use of their address book, bringing in the impressive Kenneth Omeruo and Nathaniel Chalobah from Chelsea and the now-injured Mejias from Madrid, but it wasn’t an amazing transfer window; many reported targets were the same as under Mowbray. With clubs more willing to negotiate in the summer, Boro fans are hoping that the next transfer window will be their time to shine.
Overall, Boro fans would probably put Karanka’s tenure so far at a six or seven out of ten. It has not been the explosion to the top of the table that many fans hoped for, but the more realistic ones among us recognise that it is a solid base to build on – a return to the Premier League is perhaps not as far away as it had seemed.
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