There is no question that Middlesbrough and Aitor Karanka will be taking a second shot at Championship glory this season. After falling at the final hurdle against Norwich City at Wembley, the Spaniard now knows the cruelty that the Championship can offer.
There is an argument that the Championship was more exciting that the Premier League last term, this opinion is down to the attacking intents of many of the teams placed in the upper echelons o the division. The Teeside club are certainly one of these sides. Poaching strikers, dazzling wingers, and artistic midfielders, joined with a brick wall defence and you have a title challenging team. Unfortunately some of the big names up top have departed since May. Both Patrick Bamford’s and Jelle Vossen’s loan deals expired and they returned to their parent clubs. There was chatter that Vossen would be returning for a second season at the Riverside but the Belgian decided to join the ranks at relegated Premier League side Burnley instead.
Despite the departures of these key names, Spanish striker Kike and explosive forward Lee Tomlin remain with the club. The latter was preferred in an advanced midfield position last term, due to the array of strikers Karanka had at his disposal, but he may now fight for his place on the frontline with his position being vacant. Unless any other forward talent is brought in over the next month or so, then I can see the former Peterborough man leading the line.
Many Boro fans were left shocked by the surprise return of midfielder Stewart Downing last month. After a hot and cold season at West Ham United the midfielder opted to return to his former club. Downing told the media that the clubs “ambition” attracted him to the move, and fans will certainly be happy to have him back. Downing began last season on fire, leading the assists charts after a few months, he soon slacked off, leading to his demotion to the bench and eventually the move away. He will pull on the red shirt for the first time since 2009 when Boro face Preston on the 8th August. Elsewhere in the midfield Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton will hope to continue to immense form that saw both of them become firm fans favourites last term . Together with his 14 goals in all competitions, Leadbitter, showcased his tough tacking and pinpoint passing on a regular basis, but it was not enough to fire him and his team back to the top flight.
It was another fantastic season for the Middlesbrough rearguard last term and I expect much of the same to follow this campaign. Ben Gibson forced his way into the England under 21 set up, earning a place amongst the squad sent to the Czech Republic, George Friend consolidated his left back spot, claiming assists left right and centre making him one of the most valuable left backs in the league. The second centre back spot will be up for grabs from the start this season. Thomas Kalas is back at the Riverside once again after agreeing a loan switch form Chelsea. You can’t forget Middlesbrough stalwart and once England player Jonathan Woodgate, the 35-year-old has been riddled with injuries throughout his illustrious career, but a solid pre season could set him on his way to a swansong season in the Premier League. Finally Daniel Ayala. The former Liverpool youngster was inconsolable at the conclusion of the play off final defeat, and will be determined not to repeat that heartbreak.