Boro will be hoping to show they have the Hex Factor over Aitor Karanka when the former boss makes a Riverside return with Birmingham on Saturday.
Neil Warnock enjoyed a thumping 4-1 win over Karanka’s Birmingham in the away game just before Christmas as Britt Assombalonga and George Saville clawed by an early deficit in the first half then Lewis Wing added two more after the break.
There can’t be many times that evangelical organiser Karanka has seen his side conceded four. At home. And to rub salt into the wound, to his old employers.
While Boro supporters would relish a similar emphatic scoreline over their former favourite, another defeat would pile the pressure on under-fire Karanka, who was only appointed just before the start of the campaign.
Karanka is facing some familiar flak from fans at City who are growing frustrated at the boss sticking obstinately to his defensive tactics and playing just one up front while the relegation haunted Blues are desperate for goals and points.
Boro fans will recall similar spells when the Basque boss was building his team when he first arrived on Teesside. He only won one of his first five as he tried to stamp his mark, then there was a record run of seven games without scoring in the second half of the season as he steadily fine-tuned his tactics.
But at Boro he had the luxury of time and a supportive chairman. Trigger happy Birmingham chiefs have a notorious lack of patience while the frustrated manager has little in the goodwill bank with their equally hard to please fans.
He cut his managerial teeth at Middlesbrough and carved out his reputation with first a Championship play-off final in 2015 and the promotion to the Premier League the following year, in 2016. It would be a cruel irony if defeat at the Riverside were to hasten his exit.
On paper, Boro will be red hot favourites against bedraggled Birmingham. Warnock’s in-form side had struggled to score earlier in the campaign but have won four out of five in the league and rattled in 12 goals along the way, including four against City three weeks ago.
The Blues meanwhile are in a tailspin. They have taken just one point from their last six in the league, leaked 14 and scored just three. In four games they have failed to net and they are bottom of the table when it comes to shots on target.
That will terrify long time Boro fans who have been stung before and will fear the ‘inevitable’. But then, they probably thought the same before the away game.
Photo by Ian Robinson
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