Aitor Karanka has backed his fast-learning Middlesbrough side to hand him a Christmas present against high-flying Burnley.
Boro find themselves in a basement battle in the Championship but won against Millwall on Saturday to confirm Karanka’s feeling that his team are learning from their mistakes.
Despite injuries and the spectre of a New Year relegation fight, they managed to win at the notoriously difficult New Den, and now Karanka is backing them to give Burnley problems today.
“My first thought is always about my team,” he said.
“We have played against Leeds, Brighton and Derby – teams who are well up in the table – and if we can push those teams all the way, which we did, there is no reason why we cannot beat Burnley.
“I know it will be a tough game because Burnley have a very good team, and that is the most important word. They are a team. Sometimes, you can have a lot of good players, but it will not work if they are not a team.
“Burnley definitely play as a team and that is coming through in their results and performances.”
Sean Dyche’s Burnley have soared to the top of the division on the back of team-work and are an example for Karanka.
He said: “When I was a player, I quickly learned that you can have some very good players in your squad, but if you do not play as a team, that is not very good.
“I prefer to have a very good team rather than a collection of talented individuals, and Burnley seem to have that team relationship. We are building that, and we are training to build a team. I think we are getting there, but we have to win the games to prove it.”
He believes they are already starting along that line, with several of the Boro boss’ fringe men coming in from the cold to deliver red-hot performances in South London.
“I am pleased because all the players in the squad are proving that they can come in and do well if they are called upon,” he said.
“Before Saturday, Jozsef Varga had only played for five or 10 minutes at Derby for me, and he was asked to play in a position that he did know very well. But I thought he played very well.
“There were others players who had not had much football, but they all came in and did well. I have a squad of around 27 players, and it is important to know that each player is capable of playing each game if they are required.
“I am happy with the quality, but the most important thing is the attitude. All the players have to give 100% and we need to learn from our past mistakes. In the last game, we were very good and we need to stay at that level.”
Boro’s boss also offered further hope to young striker Curtis Main, who impressed in the defeat of Millwall.
The former Darlington striker has been counselled on the importance of hard work as he looks to make his Riverside breakthrough.
“This is a very important moment for Curtis in terms of taking his career forward. He is not old, so you cannot say that he is an experienced player, but he is also not really young any more so you cannot treat him like a youngster,” said Karanka.
“He is somewhere in the middle, and so it is important that he begins to take his career to the next level now. He has been playing very well and I am very happy with him. He has been working well with me, and he is one of the players who has been given an opportunity to come into the team.
“He played at the weekend and had a very good game. He might not have been having lots of chances, but he did a lot of things that I wanted him to do.
“He has a lot of quality, but he needs to mix that side of the game with hard work and working for the rest of the team. He needs to show the right level of work and commitment. If he can mix that with his skill and goalscoring, he could be a very good player.”