The five key things Middlesbrough need to avoid relegation

Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka

As Middlesbrough are set to kick-off their Premier League season, there are five key areas Aitor Karanka should look at to avoid relegation.

Middlesbrough manager Aitor KarankaMiddlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka

Middlesbrough kick-off their Premier League campaign against Stoke City at The Riverside on Saturday with Aitor Karanka looking to establish the club in English football’s top flight.

Nobody would have predicted that Karanka would be the man plotting their survival, particularly after his highly-charged meltdown back in March, but that episode now appears forgiven, if not forgotten, with survival now at the forefront of supporters' minds.

Middlesbrough manager Aitor KarankaMiddlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka

Middlesbrough have not competed in the Premier League since the 2008-09 season and Karanka’s primary task will be keeping them in the division, before setting out to build on that survival. Ahead of the opening fixture against Stoke City, there remain five areas that may decide their fate.

The Negredo/Rhodes partnership

Throughout the Championship campaign last season Karanka favoured the 4-2-3-1 system, with loan signing Gaston Ramirez in the number 10 role. Ramirez has now signed permanently from Southampton and while Karanka still seems to favour this system, he has experimented in pre-season with 4-4-2.

How well new signing Alvaro Negredo performs with Jordan Rhodes is still very much the big question, and their still remains the feeling that Karanka is just not ready to abandon the the number 10 in favour of two centre-forwards, meaning Rhodes and Negredo will end up in a straight battle with each other for the starting spot.

Alvaro Negredo of MiddlesbroughAlvaro Negredo of Middlesbrough

Defensive stability

Having missed out on Borussia Dortmund’s Neven Subotic during the transfer window, doubts remain over certain defensive positions.

But defensively in the Championship last season Middlesbrough were the stand-out performers, with left-back George Friend and centre-backs Ben Gibson and Dani Ayala shining.

All three players were named in the PFA Championship Team of the Year, and Friend in particular was one of the stars of Karanka’s side. But ultimately they may be in need of that central defender they are missing, in the mould of Serbian defender Subotic.

Middlesbrough's George Friend in actionMiddlesbrough's George Friend in action

Midfield signings

Middlesbrough have bought well in their midfield area. Not only have they completed the permanent signing of Ramirez, but supporters will also be hoping to see great things from new signings Viktor Fischer and Marten de Roon.

Both players come with high expectations, particularly de Roon who last season completed more tackles in Serie A than any other player, coming off the back of an impressive season with Atalanta.

The emergence of de Roon and Fischer may be one of the key factors as to why Middlesborough may not find themselves in a relegation battle - if they can adapt.

Marten De Roon of Middlesbrough and Markel Bergara of Real Sociedad (R) in actionMarten De Roon of Middlesbrough and Markel Bergara of Real Sociedad (R) in action

Goalkeeping issues

During the summer transfer window, Karanka turned to former Manchester United and Barcelona goalkeeper, and signed Brad Guzan on a free transfer from Aston Villa.

The feeling is Valdes will be the starting goalkeeper, but should his form falter at any moment, you could do much worse than Guzan as your back-up.

Middlesbrough's Brad GuzanMiddlesbrough's Brad Guzan

Injury free

The Teesside club need to remain injury free for the majority of the campaign.

The depth of their squad is just not where it needs to be at the moment and should Karanka’s side suffer injuries to key men it would further add to the struggle.

If they can have that bit of luck, and the healthy players perform then they are well set, but a run of unexpected problems could derail their ambitions.

Register for HITC Sport - Daily Dispatch