Last season, Aitor Karanka made no secret of his belief that Middlesbrough couldn’t handle the pressure of being top of the Championship. It was a view he shared as though there was no shame in it, that such an obvious preference for being the hunter rather than the hunted was both understandable and acceptable.
Maybe it’s a cultural thing, or maybe the essence of his point was lost in translation. Maybe Karanka understood it was a year too early all along. But the fact remains, Middlesbrough spent just 11 days at the summit last season, across four different spells, and always failed to win their next match. And when it came to the crunch of a play-off final, they crumbled then too.
The Teessiders are typically feminine. They don’t like being the centre of attention and always prefer a fallback. Their finest hour last season was that Friday night game at Norwich in late April when they still had a slim chance of automatic promotion but not enough to feel any discernible pressure. All the pressure was on the Canaries.
Luckily for them, the pressure of being top of the Championship this weekend is shared by Brighton sitting unbeaten on the same number of points. The focus isn’t as much on Boro as it probably should be. The zero in the Seagulls’ L column is the issue causing baited breath. In that respect, it’s a great opportunity for Karanka to exorcise a few demons.
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Having witnessed his team well-beaten in previous top-of-the-table clashes against Reading and Hull, the Basque coach decided to rest some of his key performers for the win over Burnley in midweek. Captain Grant Leadbitter, top scorer Christian Stuani and winger Albert Adomah were all rested, prompting a slight sense of uneasiness around the Riverside.
As it was, replacements Adam Forshaw, Emilio Nsue and Kike were among the best performers on the night, Nsue scoring the only goal as Boro edged out the Clarets. Karanka could have expected no more from a full-strength team, so his position and credibility have only been strengthened ahead of this game. He knows what he’s doing, everybody just trust him.
Boro’s rise to the summit was an added bonus arising from events late on at Loftus Road. A rush of blood from Lewis Dunk earned him a second yellow card for a rash challenge on Alejandro Faurlin and Brighton subsequently conceded their 12th equaliser of the season.
On the back of tough trips to Derby and QPR, with all the invested emotion of scoring four goals, only to be pegged back in a deflating manner three times, it’s questionable how much the Seagulls will have left in the tank for this game and a bet on the Draw/Middlesbrough half-time/full-time outcome at 6/1 looks like a sensible wager.
Boro will be mindful of the fact that Brighton have established a lead 17 times in 23 matches, so patience will be the watchword and both teams, you suspect, would be relatively happy while it reamins 0-0. However, circumstances could push Albion to breaking point in the latter stages. That's when Boro are liable to take a few more risks, knowing what a significant psychological blow it would be to end Brighton’s 21-match resistance.
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