Sunday, 24 May 2015

The Final Countdown... Keys To Success At Wembley For Aitor Karanka's Lads

Boro's big day, perhaps the biggest of all, is getting nearer, hour by hour, minute by minute. The nerves and excitement inside every fan of this proud football club are rising to what must breaking point as the £120 million Wembley challenge approaches.

The Championship Play-Off Final. It hasn't been as big as this for Boro since, well, the UEFA Cup Final in Eindhoven, and that was nearly a decade ago. Time really waits for no one. At once we are equally fearful and equally cheerful ahead of a match that does not seem more equally balanced than this.

We are facing a Norwich side managed by Alex Neil, the 33-year-old Championship managerial darling of the moment. The Canaries have not lost a single game away from home throughout his reign. And there's no such thing as Typical Norwich. While Boro may well feel burdened by years of historical near misses, Neil's men claim to be treating this like any other game, as if there is no pressure on them whatever happens. A 20% success rate in cup finals post-1995 doesn't exactly bode well for Boro either, with Cardiff in 2004 being an exception rather than the rule.

But, as my friend and fellow Boro fan Paul Ahdal has pointed out, Norwich have failed to score against Boro this season, both league games ending in 4-0 (albeit under Neil Adams) and 1-0 (albeit rather unluckily) Boro victories respectively. Additionally, Norwich's Nathan Redmond has labelled both wins "lucky", stating that his club have the better players. Perfect motivation for Aitor Karanka, who has shown, time and time again, that he doesn't do Typical Boro.

And as for Neil... the question remains. Is he truly a brilliant manager or is he simply riding the crest of a wave, basking in the glow of a honeymoon period that a top notch Championship squad have contributed to? Memories of how Stuart Pearce very nearly guided Manchester City into Europe at Boro's expense in 2005 come to mind; although Boro had been in the driving seat for much of the season, as they have been this season, Pearce's City found the right, revitalising momentum at just the right time to take the battle right to the wire. Less a case of managerial magic and more of a team unified behind the cause, if you ask me.

Boro approach Wembley with a bit of both, in the perfect state of mind to take on their formidable Championship challengers. Here, in my view, are a "magnificent" seven keys to Boro succeeding tomorrow.

MAKING ATMOSPHERE COUNT. As the Gazette's Anthony Vickers has put it, we don't want another Eindhoven where a day's worth of partying and drinking left Boro fans outsung by the Sevilla fans in the stand. And Boro's team were ruthlessly outfought and outclassed by Juande Ramos's side. We simply can't let that happen again.

We're not going to get a Giants Stadium circa 1994, where the first round match between Ireland and Italy in New York saw observers feast their eyes on a cascade of green with Italians nowhere to be seen. But we've got to try. We've got to make our voices heard tomorrow for the right reasons. And judging by what I've seen in photos from Trafalgar Square tonight, we can do it.

JELLE VOSSEN. The Belgian's goals, or lack of them in contrast to goalden boy Patrick Bamford, have become secondary to his value as a supply striker. His persistence and good footwork is the perfect compliment to either Bamford or Kike. If Vossen and one of Boro's two other forwards combines well, Boro will play well.

LEE TOMLIN. Like the Brazilian Ronaldo, he has been mocked for being overweight. But "Tomlinho" is a man for the biggest stages of all - his turn at the Etihad and his brilliantly taken strike in the semi-final second leg are proof of this - and more miracles are possible.

THE SPINE. Dimi Konstantopoulos. Daniel Ayala. Ben Gibson. Grant Leadbitter. Adam Clayton. The central players, the engines of the side, the inspirations to all of those around them are the main reason why Boro have had such a mean defensive record this season. Their ability to keep things tight and keep things ticking over while the likes of Albert Adomah, Tomlin, Vossen, Kike, Bamford or even Adam Reach do their magic will be paramount. And let's not forget George Friend either....

DOING IT FOR MOGGA. It's easy to forget that nine of the fourteen players who played against Brentford in our last match were either signed or developed by Tony Mowbray and Mark Venus; the local heroes' invaluable contribution to the Karankanaut should not be cast aside. If that can't help inspire the lads on the pitch tomorrow to "do it for Teesside", I don't know what can.

KIKE. I know that the temptation to recall Patrick Bamford will bein Karanka's mind, but I genuinely think that allowing the £2.7 million signing to keep his place will be his best bet. While Bamford is only just recovering from an injury and has not scored since the 2-1 win over Wolves, Kike is fit, firing and surely in the mood to do more damage after that beautifully taken goal against Brentford. Mood defines many a striker's momentum; I think starting Kike is a risk worth taking.

THE CORRECT PSYCHOLOGICAL MENTALITY. Boro have already shown that they can adapt to going a goal down. But the final battle in this long war will surely be psychological. Here's why.

Back in January, at the Etihad, Boro were able to adopt a "Nothing To Lose, Everything To Win" mentality. With less pressure of expectation, the team were less inhibited, and simply focused on going out there and giving it their best. They knew that there was something to fall back on even in defeat, and, once they realised Manchester City were there for the taking, both belief and composure enhanced, paving the way for a deserved triumph.

Tomorrow, the expectations will be much higher in an atmosphere of no second chances, an atmosphere with big prizes of enhanced status and much more money at stake. As a certain Nigel once put it on Anthony Vickers' UntypicalBoro blog, it is a situation where "all we have to win" becomes "all we have to lose".

And, as he added, such negativity can drain the power from players, filling them with uncertainty and damaging the team pattern. This, in turn, transmits itself to the crowd, who are weighed down by the prospect of ending up as The Nearly Men.

Boro can't let this happen to them at Wembley.

And, knowing both Aitor Karanka and the team, they won't. There is enough of a positively charge around to suggest that this gifted coach and his well-organised charges are truly up to the task ahead of them tomorrow.

Need I say I'm now looking forward to it?

Here's to a wonderful Wembley experience.

Up The Boro!

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