AITOR KARANKA’S Spanish touch has worked wonders for Middlesbrough over Christmas and it came within seconds of rolling over into the New Year.
After winning three games in a row over the festive period, Middlesbrough looked like making it four at the Reebok Stadium until substitute David Ngog struck with ten seconds of the 90 minutes remaining to earn a point for Bolton.
It meant Middlesbrough’s big chance of ending their January 1 hoodoo disappeared, even if an away day point should be regarded as a decent outcome after a testing afternoon.
Boro found it quite tough against Dougie Freedman’s side throughout and had only gained a two-goal advantage because of two almighty first half blunders by former England defender Zat Knight.
The towering centre-back was culpable for losing possession in the build-up to Mustapha Carayol’s opener in the ninth minute.
And Knight was also guilty of gifting Curtis Main the second 11 minutes later before Bolton pulled one back through Alex Baptiste just before the half hour.
Just when it seemed Middlesbrough would hold on to their first away win on New Year’s Day since 1955 – only their second in 114 years – Ngog pounced in the box to snatch a point.
Only league leaders Leicester could boast a similar run of three successive wins to end 2013, but it was always going to be difficult for Middlesbrough to extend that at a venue where they have never won.
While confidence ahead of the fixture was further boosted by Shay Given’s decision to extend his stay until February 28, there were raised eyebrows when Karanka made five changes to the team which defeated Reading.
As well as replacing the suspended Dean Whitehead with Richie Smallwood, Emmanuel Ledesma was the most notable absentee after his run of brilliant form in the wins over Millwall, Burnley and Reading.
His replacement was Carayol and, with Albert Adomah switching to Ledesma’s preferred right wing role, he was the first player to go close.
After some neat link-up play between Rhys Williams and Main, two other players recalled, the former’s delivery dropped towards the back post and Carayol’s net-bound volley was blocked.
The winger looked hungry to justify his inclusion and two minutes later he hit the opener – even if he should never have had the chance.
When Knight walked with the ball on the edge of his area, he somehow got himself in a mess and gifted possession to Main.
The former Darlington striker’s quick back-heel rolled into the path of Carayol, who curled in an exquisite right-foot shot beyond Andrew Lonergan from 22 yards.
When Chris Eagles attacked, Bolton looked dangerous.
His deliveries into the area were also threatening, but both Ben Gibson and Daniel Ayala were equal to them.
Just when it seemed Bolton would push for a leveller, Knight struck again. Jacob Butterfield’s hopeful rather than perfect long ball towards Main looked comfortable for the big defender.
Instead Knight’s attempt at a close-range back pass shaved the foot of Lonergan, who had raced out of goal, before bouncing towards the empty net.
Main darted in to finish and claim his first goal since February.
Middlesbrough were two up inside 20 minutes, the Bolton fans jeered Knight’s every touch and demanded his withdrawal, while the away support got a wave from Karanka. Everything looked rosy for the visitors.
Yet Bolton should have been level before the break.
After Baptiste had curled in a lovely equaliser just before the half hour following a neat one-two with Mark Davies, the Trotters did almost all of the attacking.
When Given’s poorly-placed goal-kick caught Williams offguard, Chung-Yong Lee was allowed to nip in and run in on goal. Given charged out and stayed on his feet, Lee’s pass to the edge of the area found Jay Spearing and he shot over.
It was a lucky escape for Middlesbrough and a quick reminder that the game was far from won, despite sailing into what seemed to be a strong lead.
Having conceded for the first time in 303 minutes, there was still a resilience to prevent a second from beating Given and red shirts tended to block and clear when the ball arrived in the Irishman’s box.
That did not prevent Bolton from trying, and striker Joe Mason should have marked the end of his loan from Cardiff with the equaliser.
When Davies charged through from midfield, he picked out Mason wide right.
His shot hit the side-netting.
Bolton had been encouraged to attack and Given had to be equal to a thunderous drive from 25 yards from Spearing.
Boro needed a fresh impetus from somewhere to preserve their advantage.
Carayol was withdrawn and Main asked to play wide to accommodate Lukas Jutkiewicz up front. The change had the desired effect, with Butterfield and Main going close and Bolton’s influence reduced.
Jutkiewicz had decent claims for a penalty when a grounded Knight appeared to stop the ball with his arm in the area, while Bolton struggled to make inroads towards the Middlesbrough goal in the closing stages.
But then a late, late attack ended with headed clearances around the area and one fell to Ngog, who volleyed low and over the line just moments after he missed another clearcut chance.
Middlesbrough pushed on to try to regain the lead in the driving rain, but in the end the New Year’s Day win craved on Teesside turned out to be a hard-earned point.