SUMMER: so many repeats.
It was another chance to see what felt like a rerun last year’s exciting episode as once again Boro eased to an emphatic three goal Capital One Cup win at Oldham with a box fresh Spanish-speaking striker taking the plaudits.
Boro had to dig deep at times against a plucky home side but the quality shone through and fans went away raving about their new frontman and bubbling with optimism. But for Kike read Stuani.
The only real difference this time was the weather. Thank God.
It was exactly one year since Aitor Karanka’s half-formed team won 3-0 at a canter at Boundary Park going into his first full campaign.
That night a downpour of Biblical scale was bouncing up waist high just like it used to on that plastic pitch, the Latics latex secret weapon in their top flight glory days of the 1990s.
A mix-and-match side of new boys and fringe figures eased to a routine first round win in front of the brutal bare steel skeleton of a half-built stand. The team that night included Dimi in goal, then very much the second string shot stopper, Hines, Ayala, Woodgate and Husband across the back, Leadbitter and Whitehead in the holding roles and the midfield was Nsue, Luke Williams and Reach behind early season striking specialist Brad Fewster.
Some key players were yet to arrive. The Adam Clayton saga was over, his signing officially confirmed just before kick-off, Damia Abella was on board but awaiting international clearance while Patrick Bamford and Jelle Vossen were still weeks away.
The new Oldham stand is “finished” now – give or take some cosmetics – although Aitor’s own grand construction project at Boro goes on.
We saw that taking shape nicely. After last year’s under-pinning and foundation building the boss looks to have a far stronger structure now. His reshuffled team for the cup clash against the minnows this time was still new boys and fringe figures – but it looked to have taken a quantum leap forward in some key areas.
As last year Kike was on the bench only this time it wasn’t a teenage rookie he was shadowing but Christhian Stuani, a Uruguay World Cup striker only kept out of a starting spot for his nation by Luis Suarez.
“He comes from Uruguay, he took six weeks to buy, Stuani.”
That is a serious upgrade of the armoury and Kike’s heart must have sunk as the striker made an immediate impact and added power up-front.
And the three behind him looked far more potent and balanced this time out. On-loan Diego Fabbrini, who has played for the Italy senior team, even if only once, looks a livewire, Albert Adomah is a more disciplined and influential figure after embracing Karanka’s philosophy, and speed merchant Yanic Wildschut. That’s not a bad trio breaking forward offering speed, trickery and plenty of interplay.
Throw in the likes of Clayton, Adam Forshaw, James Husband, Daniel Ayala, highly-rated loanee Jack Stephens, also making his first start and looking composed and strong, and Tomas Meijas, Boro’s specialist knockout keeper.
You wouldn’t be overly worried if that team started a Championship game this season.
But for a really vivid illustration of the strength of Karanka’s new squad just look at that bench: wow! George Friend and Grant Leadbitter were in the Championship team of the last term and would walk into any of our rivals’ starting line-ups, our Greek Dimi-God had more clean sheets than a medium sized hotel, then there is Kike, Tomas Kalas and teenage Berwick Hills battler Dael Fry. Plus, lest we forget, Stewart Downing, the prodigal playmaker brought in to sprinkle magic dust.
That’s an impressive set of alternatives. It shows that Karanka has strength in depth, tactical options and potential game-changers in his squad.
With at least one frontman still to come and some other transfer tweaks to be made before the window Boro look a solid squad with strength in depth, especially in the creative pool competing for a place in the three behind the striker.
Rebooted Boro look to have made a marked improvement in personnel and balance year on year in visits to Oldham.
Same time next year at Boundary Park so we can check out how our Premier League preparations are going?
BORO may have just found a player. Or two.
International hitman Cristhian Stuani made an immediate impact on his first start with a two goals haul in a polished display up front leaving pundits and fans gushing.
Strong, direct, perceptive, potent… Aitor Karanka appears to have landed a top quality striker. It has been a long wait to see the £3.6 Uruguay international and former Espanyol hit man in action after a frustrating paperwork hold-up left his debut in the post.
A new chant appeared: “He comes from Uruguay, he took six weeks to buy.”
We knew his pedigree was impressive but it was good to finally see him shrug off his red tape and ring rust and give us some evidence of exactly what the gaffer sees in him.
And it was impressive. He was quick-witted and made good runs into the box and twice just failed to connect with low balls across the face of goal by a whisker. He was powerful on the ball and muscled off the attention of defenders – he was given some robust attention but showed he could take it and dish it out. He was good in the air. His opener was a perceptive run and powerful header but he also won a string of other high balls.
He knows where the goal is too. He twice brought good saves before slamming home his second as he darted quickly into position to hammer in an angled effort.
And he makes surging well timed runs into the penalty area and behind the defence which invites quick balls into him. His movement drives the team forward, raises the tempo demanding first time balls and forces the opposition back and drags them out of shape.
And just behind him, Boro also appear to have signed a genuine “number 10” in Diego Fabbrini. He was a livewire presence, buzzing all along the three positions behind the striker, demanding the ball and moving it quickly, linking up smoothly with the players either side of him to play the ball intelligently to the one in front and giving Boro a forward fluidity so often lacking last term.
Fabbrini: added some fizz up front for a team that looked flat at times last year.
The black booted midfield maverick has an instinct to attack and he popped up on both flanks and through the centre, running at players and trying to dribble or trick past them or darting into the box on diagonal runs to pull defenders all over. His relentless movement won the missed penalty and teed up the opener.
His dynamic display was a pleasure to watch. He is a catalyst. He makes things happen. He is exciting. He plays with zest And he adds something that had been missing.
The pair look to be fantastic additions to Aitor’s offensive armoury.
And Karanka hasn’t finished yet. David Nugent may be added to the mix up front very quickly. And another creative midfielder – as well as Stewart Downing – may arrive yet to add competition behind the striker.
The boss now has real options at the business end and that gives cause for optimism.