MIDDLESBROUGH head coach Aitor Karanka believes back-to-back wins over two play-off hopefuls suggests his side is capable of challenging for promotion back to the Premier League.
The Teessiders secured successive league wins for the first time since January after Nathaniel Chalobah’s second half strike was enough to see off Derby County, managed by former Boro boss Steve McClaren.
The Rams look certain for a place in the play-offs at the end of the season, but Middlesbrough capitalised on a lethargic performance from McClaren’s men to take the points at the Riverside.
The win came seven days after Boro produced an impressive display to beat Brighton, who sit five points off the top-six with six games to play, on the south coast, and while Boro have spent the majority of the season sitting in mid-table, they have taken points from four of the Championship’s top six.
CELEBRATION JIG: Nathaniel Chalobah celebrates with team-mates after putting Boro 1-0 ahead against Derby County on Saturday
The Teessiders remain 11 points adrift of sixth-placed Reading despite the win on Saturday and although there are still 18 points to play for Karanka’s side are resigned to another season in the second tier.
McClaren made his first return to the Riverside as an opposing manager since leaving in 2006, but it was the current Boro boss who ended the afternoon in a positive mood.
“I am delighted because the team played very well again against a very good team who is challenging for the play-offs,” said Karanka, whose side entertain Birmingham City tomorrow night. “We showed that when we play like a team we are capable of beating everyone.
“I’m very happy for the people that have come here for the last four or five games. They have seen us play very well, but have only seen the one win against Ipswich.”
Middlesbrough have now scored on four successive occasions after their seven-match goal drought and Karanka believes the improvement they have made in front of goal has been key.
He said: “I think scoring goals has made a difference. In the games here against Leeds and Blackburn we had more chances than we had against Derby but we couldn’t score. In this game we just had two or three chances but we have won the game by one goal.”
Their issues in front of goal have been resolved but it doesn’t appear to have come at a cost at the other end. Saturday’s win was the 14th time Boro have kept a clean sheet since the Spaniard took over in November and he admitted the squad have worked hard to eradicate the concession of sloppy goals.
“I am very happy with the amount of clean sheets we are keeping and with the work we are putting in,” Karanka said. “The most important thing is to win games at home and dedicate them to our supporters. I’m happy with our work at the back.”
Karanka made one change to his line-up, bringing in Chalobah to replace Dean Whitehead in midfielder. The 19-year-old was given more licence to get forward than normal and that decision paid off when he collected Emmanuel Ledesma’s pass to finish past Lee Grant in the 69th minute.
The Chelsea youngster has impressed sporadically since arriving in January and alongside Kenneth Omeruo, Ben Gibson and Luke Williams, Karanka has built a side full of young talent that is producing results.
The Boro boss said: “Chalobah needs to play how he knows he can and if he does he is going to be a very good player. He needs to give 100 per cent always.
“Luke is improving all the time, he has the quality and personality and I am very happy with him and his performance because he is one of our young players. For me, it doesn’t matter what age they are, we are playing a lot of young players.
“The most important thing is the team, and the players who play the next game will be the players who have shown me something.”
Karanka will check on the fitness of Dimi Konstantopoulos and Ledesma, who both suffered knocks in the win over Derby, ahead of tomorrow night’s meeting with Birmingham.