AFTER a succession of uninspiring performances, Middlesbrough head coach Aitor Karanka has urged his side to pay back the club’s loyal away following with a result against Watford this afternoon.
The Teessiders head to Vicarage Road looking for their first win in five games, a run that has included three consecutive goalless draws.
At the final whistle of their latest blank against Blackburn a week ago, a smattering of boos came from the Riverside crowd, who made their feelings known to Karanka and Co.
While Middlesbrough have made strides under the Spaniard, their troubles have made a spectacular reverse with a side that was notorious for conceding sloppy goals now on a run of eight clean sheets in ten games.
On the flip side, Boro’s free-scoring capabilities have well and truly dried up and they are now without a goal in over 400 minutes of play having been in the Championship’s top three scoring sides earlier in the season.
The frustration inside the Riverside increased as the game went on last weekend with the Teessiders throwing everything at Rovers to no avail, but Karanka insists the players should relish the pressure that playing in front of a big following entails, whether it be at home or away.
Over 4,000 supporters made the trip to the Keepmoat Stadium two weeks ago only to be met with an uninspiring nil-nil and the Boro head coach admits it is time his players produced a result to reward their “amazing” fans with over 1,000 expected to make the trip south today.
“For me, when I was playing I preferred to play at home and with the pressure that brings,” Karanka said.
“I would like to play and have our fans supporting us at home, but here you can go anywhere and they are there with us.
“It’s very important to have that away backing. At Millwall we had a lot of supporters at the game and it was the same against Doncaster. The pressure is always good for us.”
While they have been struggling to score, Middlesbrough have made a remarkable improvement defensively under Karanka, despite several injury set-backs.
The Spanish-born manager has had to play five different combinations in central defence over that ten game period and the fact his side can keep clean sheets regardless of changes is a big positive.
He said: “It is very important that the team is doing that. Not for me, because I know all the players are capable, but it is good for us as a team. It shows we are working very well regardless of who plays.
“Dani (Ayala) and Rhys (Williams) did very well and we kept clean sheets with them, but the good thing is Woody (Woodgate) and Ben (Gibson) came in and we still conceded no goals. The team is concentrating much better than it was when I first arrived, we just need to solve the problem of scoring.
“I am satisfied with the team. They played very well in the first half (against Blackburn) and did exactly what I wanted them to. We didn’t score, but we played a lot better than the game at Doncaster and there was improvement from that game. We have had all week to prepare and we need to win the game.”
While Boro did everything but score last weekend, ironically strikers Lukas Jutkiewicz and Luke Williams both bagged goals for loan clubs Bolton Wanderers and Hartlepool United respectively.
Karanka sent the pair, along with Marvin Emnes, out on loan last month but so far they appear to be enjoying their time away from the Riverside, while Boro continue their barren spell.
Karanka insists it was the right decision to let Jutkiewicz go even if he was replaced by a player who is also short of goals and confidence in Danny Graham and believes it can only be good for the club’s future to see players do well on loan.
“No, it wasn’t frustrating to see them score,” Karanka revealed. “It is good news for me and I am the happiest man in the world to hear Juke has scored, because it‘s good for him.
“It’s good for us and the future. The same applies to all the players that have gone out on loan. I said it was important Juke got some confidence back and hopefully we can continue to do that.
“I hope we can get a bit of luck in front of goal. We had a lot of chances against Blackburn. We had 16 corners and if we play in the same way I am confident the goals will come and we can win the game.
“I am more comfortable now training with 20 players. We have a couple of injuries, but having a smaller group means we can work on game situations on the training field and hopefully that will begin to pay off.”