Aitor Karanka has told his players to focus on each and every game, as run of four straight victories draws play-off's into contention.
As well as winning their last four games, the one-time Spain international has also masterminded a run of only two defeats in 10 games, whilst circumventing injuries and suspensions in the process. Following victory over promotion chasing Burnley - in which the absence of George Friend through injury, and Ben Gibson and Kenneth Omeruo through suspension, resulted in the use of a previously untested 3-5-1-1 formation - Middlesbrough sit six points off sixth-placed Reading with four games left.
Although the potential for a late surge into the play-off's is out of their hands, Karanka has told his players to focus on every game, rather than expecting their incredible run of form to continue automatically. Speaking ahead of Saturday's game at home to Millwall, Karanka told Gazette Live: “You have to respect the league because every game we have left is against a team either trying to beat relegation, or get promoted.
“Millwall will be be a tough game and we have to play for a clean sheet and get goals. We have done that in games. But we always take one game at a time. I concentrate on the next game and the next training session.
"I understand that the fans are excited because they feel we have a chance of the play-offs. But I have to be realistic. I am happy and smiling because the team is playing well."
When asked to comment on the current state of his side, the former Real Madrid assistant coach responded in a positive manner: "When we are playing well and winning I do regret that the season is coming to an end, but since I came here in November I think it has been a success whatever happens in the remaining games.”
“When we played the away game at Millwall we were near the bottom three. We had played well against Derby, Birmingham and Brighton, but we hadn't won.
“Winning that one changed our way, and we went in the right direction. So it was a big win for us, a big three points.”
The key to Karanka's improvement of the Teesside club has been in the defensive third, with only 20 goals conceded in the 27 games played since his arrival. Taking advantage of a strong relationship with Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, Karanka signed 20-year old Nigerian central defender Kenneth Omeruo on-loan in January, and the youngster has rapidly established himself as one of the best defenders in the Championship. A WhoScored rating of 7.32 places Omeruo as the highest rated outfield Middlesbrough player, and as one of the highest rated in the division.
Many fans believe that keeping hold of Omeruo is the key to success next season, and - with the Nigerian unlikely to break into the Chelsea squad - Karanka should be positive in his ability to keep him. If the Spaniard can mould his team around Omeruo, and continue his rapid improvement of the on-pitch performances, there is do denying that Middlesbrough should be fighting for promotion come the start of next season.