JOSE Mourinho turned up at Brighton to spark a pre-match pap pic frenzy and everyone was talking about the number two.
And that is not just his natty new buzzcut hair style.
The presence of the axed former Chelsea boss naturally put the spotlight on his former dug-out apprentice, Aitor Karanka.
Given the emphatic nature of Boro’s 3-0 dismantling of Brighton, Aitor has learned a lot of the better aspects of the Sacked One’s skill set and systematically applied it ruthlessly on the pitch.
Mourinho – now at a loose end on matchdays – made a surprise trip to the Amex Stadium to back Boro and his friend Aitor in today’s top of the table clash against the Seagulls and even popped into the changies after the game to meet the team and give his congratulations on the impressive display.
The Portuguese boss formed a strong bond with Karanka while the Boro head coach was his assistant at Real Madrid.
The won the title together while at Madrid and Karanka regards Jose as a mate and a mentor and has frequently mentioned that the pair are in regular communication.
No doubt the phone has been hot this week as the pressure mounted on Mourinho before he was axed at Stamford Bridge yesterday.
But in first appearance since being handed a squillion pound golden P45 the colourful conspiracy theorist and recently recast ‘specialist in failure’ made a beeline to Brighton as a guest of Boro to watch the game.
Ironically, after ‘losing the Chelsea dressing room’ he saw exactly what a well organised team regarded as the best in their league can do when they have a steely team spirit .
He will have seen a strong side battling for each other, for the manager and for the shirt; a single, determined, united entity working to a tactical shape and imposing a collective mentality in clinical fashion. Maybe he was making notes ready for his next time in charge.
And he’s not the only one who have taken note of a terrific team ruthlessly rolling to an emphatic victory
Boro made a massive statement of intent live on television that will have put a chill down the spines of the fans, staff and players of every team in the Championship.
All the promotion pretenders would have been sat in hotels, or on coaches or in stadiums warming up for their own games watching that. And they will have watched a well balanced side finally getting into their rhythm as the promotion race moves up a gear.
Last year’s meme was that Boro “couldn’t beat the big teams away” (we’ll put to one side the wins at Derby, Norwich and Brentford for the sake of that narrative) and that outlook was reinforced by the dismal displays at Reading and Hull an placed a doubt in the mind of fans.
But Boro have got into their rhythm now and put in an impressively functional display to win 2-0 at Ipswich and now have built on that and blasted previously unbeaten Brighton apart on their own patch.
Boro are starting to look like a real team. They are starting to show their promotion credentials. They are starting to look the team to beat.
They threw a tactical noose over the early pace-setters and joint leaders and then slowly, ruthlessly, tightened it.
It was a perfect away day display combining silk and steel, energy and neatly orchestrated attacking intent, tigerish team-work with flashes of individual magic.
Yes, they scored an early goal and that changed the tactical complexion and set the mood music, but even putting that aside, Boro did almost everything right.
The got the opening goal and then soaked up the pressure, conceded possession 30 yards out and invited Brighton to come forward leaving space behind them to exploit and Karanka’s side twice launched fatal forward forays to seal it with killer goals.
Even then the boss gave them a half-time rocket for not being more assertive and pushing
The back four – six – defended as a unit, worked at a frightening intensity and put down a marker early on flying into some juggernaut physical tackles to show they couldn’t be bullied out of their stride.
They denied space, closed down Brighton players and threw bodies in the way to block shots and cut out crosses and every time a home player got in the box they were swamped by a posse of red shirts.
They grabbed the game by the throat in midfield with the two anchormen ferocious in the tackle and recycling possession quickly and accurately. They never missed a beat.
And up front the attacking unit combined well, supported each other with some intelligent movement and crisp touches and when the chances came they took them.
There were so many individuals who deserved the Gazette stars we could have done with a bumper Christmas multi-pack: Albert, George, Dani Dani Ayala, Clayton, Stuani, Nsue, Dimi made his customary weekly wonder save at a crucial point.
There were a lot of individuals picking up plaudits but it was the team display that Jose and other watching coaches will have taken note of.
The stats are now looking awesome. Boro have now gone 547 minutes without conceding in the league and since losing at Hull have won five and drawn one.
This season they have scored the first goal 13 times and have won 12 and drawn one. They have lost just once and conceded only two goals at home and are to face most of their rivals at the Riverside.
Before the other games kicked off they were top and a yawning 13 points clear of seventh spot and by the end of the day after Hull had lost, Boro look to be in a strong position, top as the halfway point looms.
It is a good place to be going into Christmas and while Aitor will have the players fully focussed and in training for the festivities we can all allow ourselves a little drink to celebrate.
Especially the magnificent away day army. Boro took 1839 on their longest journey of the season for a lunchtime kick-off on the Saturday before Christmas. They deserve respect.
And they deserve to EIO all the way home hailing their table-topping heroes.
What we said before…
BRIGHTON: its time to apply some pier pressure to a side that are joint, top and unbeaten but who have looked vulnerable, have injuries and suspensions in key positions and have leaked quite a few goals of lately – although fair play, they have twice battled from behind so clearly have spirited and goals.
Boro have been rock solid of late, have more clean sheets that Brentford Nylons (one for the teenagers there) and should be at full strength for the top of the table televised tussle and could find themselves in a rare position: the opposition may come at them and play football and leave them some space beyond the designated coach parking spaces to actually play in. It could/should be a decent game. I’m looking forward to it.
I’d take a draw right now. I’d take a goalless draw with both sets of fans booing to be honest and put it down as a strategically important stand-off that would make for a good week’s work on the back of a win over Burnley…. BUT I think Boro can win. We have a good record here, the onus is on the home team to attack and allow a frustrated team to express itself and the squad is at full strength with some key players to come in fresh and with a point to prove. So I’m going for a clinical 1-0 win.
Over to you…. usual drill: predict the score and how the game will pan out and then all back here later to swap notes. Go: