AITOR KARANKA has finally given up on a play-off place and has challenged his Middlesbrough players to gain strength from this season's inability to climb in to the top six.
Boro head to Reading tomorrow knowing they missed a golden opportunity to close the gap to the play-off zone when they slipped to a 2-1 defeat to Millwall on Saturday at the Riverside Stadium.
Middlesbrough had given their hopes a real boost after winning four consecutive games in the Championship but were unable to close in on the promotion hopefuls after starting poorly against the Lions.
While Millwall climbed out of the relegation zone, Middlesbrough were unable to build on their recent progress and increase in optimism after the impressive win at promoted Burnley seven days earlier.
Karanka was frustrated after Saturday's defeat and the Spaniard is keen to see Middlesbrough learn after admitting he will not be thinking about the play-offs any longer following the defeat to Millwall.
“I'm surprised with the performance,” said a clearly disappointed Karanka. “The problem with Boro is the same. We can do one thing with one team – like at Burnley – and then do something else against other teams, like Millwall. We have to be stronger.
“I need to change this over the summer for next season. That's the biggest problem. I have been here for six months but we have always had chances and then lost the next game. Like this time, we have been talking about the play-offs and then we have lost games.
“In January we lost the points when we were talking things up. We need to be stronger and maintain our intensity. Until that day happens we will never get higher up the league, like where we want to be.
“We need to be stronger for the future. If we want to do something good next season, we need to be stronger.”
Now Middlesbrough will look to focus on dampening Reading's play-off chances when the two sides meet at the Madejski Stadium tomorrow night, with Karanka adamant he will not be giving the club's young guns a chance for the sake of it.
“We need to think about the next game, not the play-offs,” he said. “When I came here, we were 11 points below the play-offs and then we were four points outside the play-offs in January.
“When everybody spoke about the play-offs, we lost a lot of games. Then we won four games in a row, and everybody was speaking about the play-offs again – and we lost again here.
“We need to know ourselves and see who we are and then we need to be stronger.
“I will field my strongest line-up in all of the games we have left. I will not make big changes. I have to respect the competition.
“Reading are going for the play-offs, Barnsley are battling against relegation, so we have to respect the competition. I will head in to these two weeks in the same way as we have approached all of the games.”