MIDDLESBROUGH head coach Aitor Karanka is confident his side can compete at the top of the Championship, despite seeing his side lose their final pre-season game against Villarreal.
Boro went down 2-0 to the Spaniards, but Karanka was encouraged by his players’ performance against a team that finished sixth in La Liga last season.
The Teessiders start at home to Birmingham on Saturday and, although Karanka admits his squad is still short, he is happy with the pre-season progress.
Emilio Nsue arrived on Friday with Kenneth Omeruo’s loan move expected to be completed in the coming days, but Karanka is still in the market to strengthen his ranks in the hope of building on last season’s 12th place finish.
Chelsea pair Patrick Bamford and George Saville could join Omeruo at the Riverside, but Boro’s interest in Huddersfield’s Adam Clayton looks over with Brighton ready to make a move for the midfielder.
Weekend reportsd suggested Boro have rejected an improved offer, believed to be in the region of £3m from Nottingham Forest for Albert Adomah, but Karanka is focusing on bringing in players rather than letting them go.
Whether there are any more new arrivals before the season opener remains to be seen, but Karanka believes he has seen signs his team can complete for a top six place.
“It was the kind of game where the score didn’t matter,” he said. “We lost but the performance was good.
“You can see the difference between the teams. They finished sixth last season, but at times I thought we matched them and it was important that my players felt they could compete against anybody.
“I know we are a team that can compete with everybody. We competed against Villarreal for most of the game. They had more chances and were better than us, but we completed. I knew last season we were capable of doing that.
“In Spain the players didn’t have the right attitude but I thought they played well against a team like Villarreal. The team is improving all the time, but we need more players. The club is working to do that but the squad has certainly improved since the beginning of pre season.
“The most important thing is that by August 31 we have the best squad possible. There could be more from Chelsea, but I don’t know at this stage.
“I would like to have had all the squad from the beginning of pre-season, but that wasn’t possible. It was concerning that we hadn’t bought many in, but the club is working and I have to be patient.
“I feel the squad is stronger than it was at the end of last season. We already had some very good players but the ones that have come in will make us better and we also have a lot of young players.”
First half goals from Gerard Balaguero and Leiva sealed the win for Villarreal with new striker Kike going closest for the hosts.
James Husband and Emilio Nsue were both introduced in the second half and Karanka revealed the latter will offer several options.
He said: “Emilio can bring a lot of things to the team. He’s a very positive lad. Already you can see he doesn’t want to stay close to the Spanish players. He wants to be in the middle of the changing room because he wants to speak English as soon as possible.
“He can play in several positions - as a right-back, winger on both sides and can also be a striker, but he is strongest as a right winger.
“If he plays as a right-back it’s because we need him as an emergency, not because I want to play him there. He’s the kind of player that is very important to us, especially when we have a squad of 23 or 24.”
Karanka admitted it is unlikely Omeruo will be fit to start Saturday’s season opener having only recently returned to training following his World Cup exploits, while Jonathan Woodgate is also a doubt with calf and back problems.
That means Saturday’s central defensive pair Daniel Ayala and Ben Gibson could start against Birmingham.
Asked about Omeruo, Karanka said: “I don’t think he will play next week. Only the players that are 100 per cent fit will play.''
Middlesbrough (4-2-3-1): Mejias (Konstantopoulos, 60); Bennett (Hines, 46), Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Whitehead, Butterfield (Leadbitter, 58); Adomah (L Williams, 58), Tomlin (Husband, 73), Reach (Nsue, 76); Kike (Fewster, 76).
Subs (not used): Smallwood, Halliday, Burgess.
Villarreal (4-4-2): Sanchez Martinez (Andreas, 46), Perez Martinez (Rukavina, 46), D Ramirez (Abreu, 73), Pineda, Jorda (Isla, 63); Cherysev (Rodriquez, 63), Llido (S Ramirez, 73), Munoz (Uche, 63), Leiva; Dos Santos (Cani, 46), Balaguero (Gomez, 63).