Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Millwall (A): A Pre-Christmas Fillip For Karanka And Boro

Photo: Evening Gazette
Boro’s 2-0 away win against Millwall was one of those games where the significance of the result far overwhelmed the game itself.

Never mind that the first half was, by all accounts, as awful a match as anyone had seen all season. Never mind that, arguably, a handful of lucky breaks led to the game-changing goal. And never mind that, even if he meant it, hitherto forgotten man Emmanuel Ledesma’s excellent drive home needed a helpful deflection from the post.

What we will remember – or what we at least should remember – is that this was a two-goal win away from home. It was a victory away from the Riverside Stadium by more than a single goal. And we did it without a now stereotypical “red zone” concession, without any obvious defensive sloppiness, and without Woodgate, Williams and Leadbitter – three players that were supposed to form the bedrock of our “success” this season.

It was a great Christmas present for fans and the perfect tribute for poor Stuart Parnaby and his family. Ledesma’s celebration should have been acknowledged as the moving tribute it was rather than by a yellow card.

Boro have proven they can win away, and win away well, and that the team spirit, as fragmented as it may seem, is still intact in a familiar manner. This really could be a massive boost to the Karanka-chiefs both psychologically and wholeheartedly.

What made the difference? Well, easy though it would be to conclude this, I think AK reshuffling resources did the trick. Restoring Jozsef Varga to the team, in the right-back position, where he had previously played for Hungary, added a robust and solid presence on the right, giving Carayol and later Ledesma their chance to thrive. Even if Ledesma was more successful than Carayol on the night.

George Friend seemed revitalised, and the rapidly improving Ben Gibson was a reliable presence alongside the error-prone but capable Ayala. This defence was a good mixture of dependability (Varga and Gibson) and indulgence masked by intermittent flair (Ayala and Friend). We have to accept that the potential for silly errors will probably never be entirely eradicated with this set of players, but one step at a time, as they say.

A workmanlike midfield of the increasingly important Dean Whitehead and Richie Smallwood complimented the obvious gifts of Carayol, Albert Adomah, Marvin Emnes and later Ledesma, with Curtis Main and later Lukas Jutkiewicz pivots around which attacks could be built. As far as centre forwards go, Main and Juke were more crucial team players rather than goal poachers in their own right, but if they can regularly contribute to victories like they did here, we’ll take that.

Of course, it would be wrong to get completely carried away by all this. We have had such a wretched time of it this year that any convincing away win will be treated as nirvana. And less than two weeks ago, if you believed many fans, I was doubting AK’s credentials as Boro boss after only five games.

On reflection, I was being extremely harsh on Karanka, in a column laced with frustration. Frustration that stemmed from the pain of repeated late concessions, multiplied by irritation at the team’s inconsistent performances and the disappointing probability of yet another promotion dream dying. All while The Ex, Steve McClaren, continued, and is continuing, to seemingly perform miracles at Derby.

But perhaps it wasn’t so much AK’s tactics that were getting under my skin as a Boro squad weighed down by fear. After all, our relatively new gaffer’s post-Brighton reaction was identical to mine. He was rightly furious that we were making the same mistakes over and over again. Jacob Butterfield’s “too good to go down” statement seemed to exacerbate things. Ironically, it might have done the reverse.

For the Millwall victory might well be a definitive wake up call. It may be a battling attempt at proving an old truism wrong, that being, the dreaded team-that-is-too-good-to-go-down invariably going down. It might inspire a series of consistently good performances. Alternatively, it may be a one-off performance driven by a special blend of passion, an unexpected goal, or both.

Knowing that Boro and consistency usually go together as well as oil and water, you would think our prospects still appear more fearful than cheerful.

Personally, I believe that if AK hauls us clear of trouble soon, and it’s still an “if” at this moment in time, 2013-14 will be an experimental season with an extremely slim chance of promotion. Experimental in that I doubt anyone, even Karanka, knows who should definitely feature in Boro’s best starting eleven, barring eight-goals-and-counting Albert Adomah.

Arguably the worst aspect of Mogga’s legacy is that he bequeathed too many mavericks to AK – players that could deliver the goods but could not be trusted to do so regularly. We’ve just been reminded that Ledesma can be an exciting source of attacks, but is he a dependable one? And we should not forget that he might not even have been on the pitch at the New Den had Muzzy Carayol not injured his groin. Similarly, the now vital presence of Shay Given was forced upon us by injury and suspension, and news that he wants to return to Villa in the New Year does make you wonder how our back line will readjust.

Food for thought over the holidays. For now, have a very Merry Christmas, and see you all after the Burnley match!

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