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Aitor Karanka pulling out all the stops

Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka visits the Emirates Stadium in the FA Cup on Sunday against Arsenal with the task of juggling Cup activity and their pursuit of Premier League promotion.

Aitor Karanka will be hoping for a repeat of his team’s win at Manchester City against cup holders Arsenal
 

Aitor Karanka had not been expecting the call. He was aware that it was, with regards to Jose Mourinho, common practice, but it did little to detract from his initial sense of consternation.

Karanka was employed by the Spanish football federation, the Real Federación Española, at the time. His role was to develop young Spanish talent, tasked with nurturing and coaching the Under-16s when the call came. Steve Clarke, Giuseppe Baresi and Steve Holland will all tell you of that one particular phone call.

Real Madrid were distinctly aware that Mourinho would appoint a former player as his assitant when he arrived at the Santiago Bernabeu in May of 2010. The Portuguese manager preferred to be assisted by an individual possessing an encyclopaedic knowledge of the club he was due to take over, accustomed to its traditions and history. Karanka ticked all the boxes.

Mourinho set about appointing his number two, asking the club conjure up a list of ex-players he could possibly work with. The current Chelsea manager organised meetings with Predrag Mijatovi?, the former Montenegrin striker who had plied his trade in the Spanish capital, Luis Figo and Clarence Seedorf. The venerated trio spoke very highly of their former colleague and Real defender Karanka, and then the order came from Mourinho. Make the approach. Make the call.

It did not come from Mourinho himself though. It was from Fernando Hierro, the Sporting Director of the Spanish Federation at the time and, coincidentally, the current Real Madrid assistant manager. Hierro stated that Jorge Valdano, Real’s sporting director, had contacted him with regards to Mourinho’s intention to install Karanka as his assistant. An ex-player revered by the fans, one who had taken tentative steps into the turbulent world of management with the national team, Karanka was perfect for Mourinho.

It was with that call that Karanka’s managerial career took off, helping Real to a Copa del Rey triumph in 2011, a La Liga title in 2012 and the Supercopa de España in the same year during three illustrious years with Mourinho.

On Sunday, his journey will take him to the Emirates Stadium in the FA Cup fifth round, full of belief that his Championship-leading Middlesbrough side can inflict upon Arsenal the much cherished FA Cup magic.

Such is the confidence enveloping the club that, on Thursday at the Rockliffe Park Training Complex, Karanka spoke of his anticipation at pitting his wits against Arsene Wenger and enhancing Middlesbrough’s Cup reputation.

He claimed that the “surprise element” had been extinguished by a performance of admirable gusto in the epic Capital One Cup third round encounter at Anfield against Liverpool in September and their memorable elimination of Manchester City in the previous round of the FA Cup at the Etihad Stadium, thus making him believe that “everyone knows about us”.

Inevitably, they would. Middlesbrough lead the Championship, a point above Eddie Howe’s vibrant Bournemouth after a victory enhanced their credentials as champions-elect on Wednesday evening at Bloomfied Road against strugglers Blackpool, on a pitch whose condition was described as a “disrespect to fans” by Karanka. 

Their lead, courtesy of Jonathan Woodgate, was cancelled out with five minutes remaining, Kike, Manchester City’s nemesis in the fourth round of the FA Cup, striking back for Boro.

Potential promotion to the Premier League is equivalent to nirvana, the holy grail for fervent Middlesbrough fans deprived of Premier League action for five years, a travesty when considering a club blessed with such prestige. Karanka, though, has helped restore pride and hope to the Riverside once again, deploying a pragmatic and expansive style of play once promoted by Mourinho in Spain, since his arrival in the North East in November of 2013.

By the time Middlesbrough parted company with Tony Mowbray, Karanka had already made up his mind. When he quit Real by mutual consent in July 2013, the 41-year-old was permitted to link up with his mentor Mourinho at Stamford Bridge and replicate the steps taken by Rui Faria and Silvino Louro. Karanka, though, had other plans, desiring to forge a career in management.

It was hardly surprising, then, that when Neil Bausor, Middlesbrough chief executive, expressed an interest in hiring Mourinho’s protégé, the Spaniard obliged, urged by Mourinho to assume a managerial post in England. Karanka’s first six months in charge were encouraging, elevating the club to a respectable 12th place when compared to the dire state of the club at the time of his appointment; a mere five points clear of the Championship relegation zone.

Karanka looked to push on in the summer, as he made use of his association with Mourinho to acquire Patrick Bamford and Kenneth Omeruo on loan deals from Chelsea. Emilio Nsue, the Equatoguinean who led his host nation to the Africa Cup of Nations semi-finals this month, also joined, strengthening Karanka’s options and offering the depth in squad required to push on for promotion.

Aside from the club’s league success thus far, Middlesbrough’s Cup activity has been equally enthralling. Having lost to Liverpool in a Capital One Cup tie 13-14 on penalties, Karanka masterminded the elimination of Manchester City in the previous round of the FA Cup, emerging victorious at the home of the champions courtesy of goals from Bamford and Kike.

On Sunday, Middlesbrough will travel to the Emirates with the belief that they can send Wenger’s side packing, as Karanka pulls out all the stops in pursuit of the holy grail.

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