Middlesbrough are 90 minutes away from returning to the Premier League, and there’s plenty of optimism around Teesside as manager Aitor Karanka has his team in a confident mood going into the Wembley showdown with Norwich on Monday.
This optimism and belief has been a rarity in recent years, but the Spaniard has brought stability into the squad with the emphasis focused on winning; a trait that also sits well with his good friend Jose Mourinho and his triumphant Chelsea team.
Three-time Champions League winner Karanka was assistant manager to Mourinho in his time at Real Madrid and has a calendar of The Special One in his office at Boro’s Rockliffe Park training facility. Both left Madrid in 2013. However, this wasn’t the end of their working relationship as the pair chose to follow different paths in England.
There are uncanny similarities between the two managers and their clubs, with both the Premier League champions and Championship Play-Off finalists helping each other throughout the season.
Through Karanka’s connections with the Chelsea boss, Boro were able to secure three loan signings that have had a real impact at the Riverside. Kenneth Omeruo had a strong start to the season and Tomas Kalas was inspirational during his loan spell.
The Czech international showed his disappointment at not being able to play the full season due to Football League loan regulations. The defender has, however, stayed with the squad since his last game in the victory at Carrow Road; signifying the togetherness of the squad Karanka has assembled.
The third, Patrick Bamford, has had his best season yet. The England U-21 international has scored 19 goals and picked up the Championship player of the season award. His form has had Chelsea fans’ alarm bells ringing as they would like to see the promising youngster sign a new contract at Stamford Bridge; something he is yet to negotiate with the champions.
Chelsea have utilised the loan market this season and used the Championship experience at Middlesbrough to bring on their highly rated young prospects. A smart move from Mourinho, who may have found a future England starlet out of nothing in Bamford.
Boro’s number 23 has been just another one of Chelsea’s young loanees in the past few seasons, but has stepped up to the mark this campaign and sparked plenty of Premier League interest from around the country.
Like the Blues, many have called Boro a ‘boring’ side this season. However some of the counter-attacking play between the front four has been Barcelona-esque. Albert Adomah’s finish in the 3-0 drumming of Brentford last week topped off an unbelievable offensive performance in the most important game of the season so far.
The link-up play between Jelle Vossen, Lee Tomlin and Adomah was more like that of something you’d expect to see at the Nou Camp rather than the second tier of English football.
Boro and Chelsea boast the best defence in their respective leagues and both managers emphasise the importance of being solid at the back in order to be a successful team. Under Karanka, Boro have had a knack of when playing poorly, coming out with all three points thanks to formidable displays from Dimi Konstantopoulos and the reliable back four.
From experience over the years Teessiders are all too familiar with the fact that when Boro play poorly, the defensive floodgates are usually wide open; memories of the 2006 UEFA Cup Final come rushing back.
Another similarity between the teams is the club captaincy; John Terry and Jonathan Woodgate are both local lads and born leaders with die-hard defensive attitudes. The former England centre-backs lift the team and build morale week in, week out, on and off the pitch.
The applause for the Boro skipper when he came on in the semi-final second leg for the last few seconds shows what his presence means to the club, even though he has made only a handful of starts all season.
Karanka has another more than capable on the field motivator when Woodgate is unavailable. Grant Leadbitter’s performances and goals have proved ever so valuable to the Boro faithful this year and his determination against Brentford typified the midfielder’s season.
Leadbitter is likely to captain the side at Wembley, with Woodgate providing direction from the bench as he has done for most of the season. The only question is will it be the injury-struck Boro boy or the set-play specialist who lifts the cup, should they get the job done?
The managerial styles of both managers are consistent on the pitch and behind the scenes. The emphasis is on building from the back and winning at all costs, even if it means upsetting people on the way. The Special One is famous for his mind games and media outbursts, whereas his former assistant deals with the press in a calm and collected way.
It was well documented that Brentford’s Harlee Dean and Mark Warburton accused Boro of being dirty and a team who can only score from set-plays; a clear attempt to provoke a reaction from the boss and players.
Instead, the Spaniard did little but praise the opposition to the media and told his men to do the talking on the pitch, as they have all season long. His master tactics worked once again, as Brentford were swallowed up by an overwhelming Riverside crowd and the Londoners failed to get a point against the Boro for the fourth time this season.
Karanka praises Mourinho at every opportunity and the pair are still close, but should Boro progress past Norwich on Monday, there will be no favors next season when Boro travel to Stamford Bridge searching for an important three points to help establish their Premier League status.