Middlesbrough 2 Birmingham City 0
GARETH SOUTHGATE bought Afonso Alves, Gordon Strachan put his faith in Kris Boyd and Tony Mowbray blew a huge chunk of his limited funds on Lukas Jutkiewicz. It is safe to say that Middlesbrough’s recent record when it comes to signing centre-forwards is not a happy one.
You have to go back to the European glory days of Mark Viduka and Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink to find the last time Boro possessed a goalscorer worthy of the name, so the omens were hardly good when Aitor Karanka opted to spend £2.8m to bring Kike, a 24-year-old Spaniard who had never played anywhere other than Real Murcia, to the Riverside.
These are still extremely early days, and just as one swallow does not make a summer, so one match-winning performance does not guarantee a lengthy spell of success in a Middlesbrough shirt.
But when it comes to first impressions, they don’t come much more positive than the one Kike created on Saturday as he ran Birmingham City’s defence ragged.
Not only did Boro’s key summer signing score his first goal in English football, reacting quickest to fire home the rebound after Lee Tomlin’s initial shot had been blocked, but he also displayed an array of skilful touches, deft pieces of control and slick, incisive passing that instantly marked him out as someone a little bit special.
True, Birmingham offered limited resistance, and while it might only be the first week of the season, it is hard to imagine Lee Clark’s side not being embroiled in another relegation battle come May. Clearly, much tougher tests lie ahead.
But for now, it is enough that when a healthy opening-day crowd filed out of the Riverside on Saturday evening, they had Kike’s name on their lips. Enthusiasm and excitement have not come easily to Boro supporters in recent years, so to have inspired both sentiments within the space of one 90-minute display is impressive.
“You could see straight away what Kike is all about,” said Daniel Ayala, a fellow Spaniard who has taken Boro’s new striker under his wing since he arrived midway through last month. “He’s got great movement, good speed and can clearly score goals. That’s just what you want from a striker.
“I was aware of him before he signed because he has played for the national team at junior levels so I knew what he was all about. But to be honest, he has impressed me even more than I thought he would.
“He’s clearly a good player and because he is a Spaniard, he brings something a little bit different. Maybe, we play a bit differently to some English clubs and that has helped him. I think him and Tommo (Tomlin) have started brilliantly together, and I am sure they are going to enjoy the season.”
Karanka identified Kike as a potential signing almost as soon as he arrived on Teesside last autumn, but it was only when Real Murcia failed to win promotion from Spain’s Segunda Division last season that he could really contemplate a move for the striker.
Even then, it was always going to be difficult to lure a former Spain Under-20 international, with more than 50 senior goals to his name for Real Murcia, to the Championship, when teams in the Spanish top-flight were also expressing an interest.
“He had offers to go to Spanish clubs, but decided to come here,” said Karanka. “It was very hard work and the club had to work extremely hard to convince him but we got him.
“I just told him everything that I have been saying since I have been here. This is an amazing club with an amazing crowd and this club has everything that it needs to be in the Premier League. I said that this club is the best way for him to play in the Premier League, and from then, it was easy for me to convince him to sign.”
Saturday’s display suggests it was well worth the effort, although Kike was far from the only player to catch the eye as Boro claimed their first opening-day victory for six years.
Tomlin was equally effective playing just off his shoulder, with his movement and vision ensuring he maintained the standards he was setting in the final month of last season. Signed from Peterborough United to perform the increasingly influential ‘number ten’ role, Tomlin could yet evolve into one of the stars of the division.
The same can undoubtedly be said of Kenneth Omeruo, and after coming off the bench to replace Ben Gibson, who suffered a hamstring injury after just 15 seconds, the returning Chelsea loanee effortlessly underlined why he was representing Nigeria at the World Cup finals this summer. He might only be 20, but it is hard to think of too many defenders playing in the Premier League, let alone the Championship, who read the game as effectively.
Gibson’s untimely early injury might have thrown Boro off their stride, but the hosts dominated from the word go and should really have been ahead before they finally broke the deadlock in the 33rd minute. Their first goal of the season was a simple one, with Ayala losing his marker to head home Grant Leadbitter’s corner from the edge of the six-yard box.
“Me and Kike are on one goal each so maybe we will have to have a competition,” joked Ayala. “We have been working on set pieces and trying to do a few different things, and that showed.”
Boro’s dominance became even more pronounced in the second half, but Kike, Tomlin and Albert Adomah were all denied by the legs of Birmingham goalkeeper Darren Randolph.
A deserved second goal arrived shortly after the hour mark though, with Kike deftly hooking a shot into the far corner of the net. He almost claimed his second after a wonderful quick free-kick routine with Tomlin, only for Randolph to again come to Birmingham’s rescue.
“I’m sure he (Kike) is going to be a big hit,” said Blues boss Clark. “His movement is good, and he’s lively.” He wasn’t the only one leaving the ground with that in his mind.