AITOR KARANKA expects Middlesbrough’s promotion credentials to be tested to the full this afternoon as they take on a Leicester City side he describes as the “best in the division”.
Nigel Pearson’s Leicester boast a five-point lead over QPR at the top of the table after winning six of their last seven matches in all competitions.
Since winning 2-1 at the Riverside on the opening day of the season, the Foxes have established themselves as leading title contenders, with the likes of Jamie Vardy, David Nugent, Anthony Knockaert and Matt James repeatedly catching the eye.
Boro are in decent shape themselves after claiming 16 points from their last six Championship matches, but Karanka accepts that today’s game will provide a clear indication of how much further they still have to progress if they want to feature in the promotion shake up come the start of May.
“It’s a good test for us and it will show how far we have come,” said the Boro boss. “I think they are the best team in the league, certainly with the strongest squad.
“Burnley were a very good team when we played them, and when you look at their team, you can see the work that their coach has put into them. The same is true of Leicester, but perhaps they have better players too.
“Maybe you could say that Burnley do not have very well-known players, but they play very well as a team. I think Leicester work as a team in the same way, but they also have very good individual players as well. When you put both of those things together, you are always going to be up at the top of the table.”
While Boro will kick off this afternoon five points adrift of the play-off places despite their recent good run, their record against the division’s leading promotion contenders is reasonably strong.
They beat Burnley 1-0 on Boxing Day, and also thrashed Reading by three goals over the festive period. The challenge now is to beat one of the leading sides on their own ground, and while Leicester have not suffered a home defeat in the league since Nottingham Forest beat them at the start of November, Karanka is confident his players are capable of securing a positive result later today.
“I am sure my team will play very well because we have always done that when we have come up against other big teams in the table,” he said. “We beat Burnley here when they were at the top of the table, and we have had similarly good results against some of the other teams close to the top of the league.
“I am sure my team will compete well. Leicester are at the top of the table now, and are playing well with a very high intensity. They have very good players, but I am very confident with my team.”
While last weekend’s performance against Charlton Athletic was hardly one of Boro’s best displays of the season, the fact the Teessiders ground out a 1-0 win said much about their new-found resolve.
Earlier in the campaign, close-fought games were going against them, but they appear to have perfected the art of winning ugly, a precious ability in a league as tough and competitive as the Championship.
An ability to keep clean sheets is clearly helping them – five shut-outs in the last six games is comfortably their best run of the season – and while Karanka would prefer to see his side adopting a more free-flowing style, he is delighted to see them grinding out victories.
“At the beginning, we were losing games even though we were often playing very well,” he said. “Recently, we have not been playing so well, but we have been winning the games. “I would like to see us playing good football as well, but for the moment, it is just important to keep going in this way. We are in a good position now and have taken a lot of points in the last month. But if we lose one or two games, it can become very difficult to get into the play-off positions.
“We can’t think too far ahead, but we must know that if we play against Leicester like we did against Charlton in the last game, then for sure we will lose. For this reason, we need to play much better.”
Karanka was boosted last night by confirmation that Daniel Ayala has completed a permanent move from Norwich in time to play today. Ayala has signed a three-and-a-half year contract after a successful loan.
But Frazer Richardson was edging closer to a move to Ipswich Town, just hours after Andy Halliday had agreed a loan until the end of the season to Blackpool