Middlesbrough must up their game for season defining playoffs

There’s one last push for Boro as Aitor Karanka’s men aim to end a six-year spell without Premier League football.

Automatic promotion to the Premier League slipped out of Middlesbrough’s grasp in the dying embers of the Championship season as they had to settle for fourth place.

There is, however, still plenty of hope for the fans and if Boro can reproduce the same performances against the other playoff candidates from earlier in the campaign, Karanka’s players will be in the top-flight next season.

Against Brentford and Norwich, Boro won 4-0 at home and 1-0 away, however, both away trips proved a nervy 90 minutes and the defence put everything on the line to try and preserve a clean sheet. A 4-1 home win against Ipswich in March made up for the lacklustre winter display at Portman Road, where Mick McCarthy’s men beat Boro 2-0 to go top.

On aggregate against their fellow Wembley-bound hopefuls they won 5-0 twice and 4-3. A well-drilled Boro side will be the one team that East Anglican sides will look to avoid in the final.

Karanka has brought optimism and hope to the fans and there hasn’t been this sort of feel around the Riverside since the Steve McClaren era. Under his guidance the club achieved their highest ever Premier League position, won their first trophy in their 128-year existence and competed in Europe.

Coming so close to automatic promotion, plus securing Boro’s highest finish since they entered the league in 2009 has enhanced Karanka’s reputation both within the club and worldwide.

Since that sunny day at Upton Park back in 2009, when relegation from the top tier was confirmed, there have been hardly any ups or downs for Boro, just mediocre performances matched with a massive drop in matchday attendances.

A couple of seasons ago Tony Mowbray’s men were top of the league at Christmas and were favourites to go up. This was followed by a four-month period where just three wins saw them plummet to a bottom half finish.

This season has been as entertaining as the last five combined for the Boro faithful. An away trip to Anfield, where the spirited Championship side only lost on penalties, was the start of the fans belief and optimism. Then came another Premier League away day in the FA Cup third round as Boro went on to beat champions Manchester City in their own back yard.

Boro found themselves on a winning streak in the league and flirting with first place at the start of the year, then came the defeats on the road to Arsenal, Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, Bournemouth and Watford.

Karanka’s men had promotion in their own hands with only a few games to spare, but looking back the 12 points dropped to Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday, plus the two draws versus Blackburn proved costly as Boro entered the final week with nothing to play for, having already secured their extension to the Championship season.

Karanka has always admitted a playoff position was the objective in August and now it is time to see what the manager and players are made of, starting with a tricky away trip to Griffin Park.

The manager has stressed how important these games are and that Boro have to “live for the moment” to avoid replicating what struggling Brighton and relegated Wigan did after their stint in the playoffs last season.

The next few weeks building up to the Wembley final at the end of May will be a nail-biting, rollercoaster ride for all Boro fans, even more so than the fatal blow at Craven Cottage, where Ross McCormack’s injury time winner ended automatic promotion chances after a highly eventful occasion.

Middlesbrough had the biggest home attendance (vs Brighton) and largest away following (vs Blackburn) of the Championship this season and it is because of this type of support that Boro fans deserve a day in the capital.

The perfect scenario would be to replace Sunderland or Newcastle United in the top tier come August after a successful Wembley outing, but from experiences down the years Boro fans are all too well aware that the club never do things the easy way.

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