Aitor Karanka has told all his players they will have important roles to play as Middlesbrough battle for FA Cup glory and Premier League survival.
The Teessiders booked their place in the quarter-finals of the cup, not without a scare, with Saturday’s 3-2 fifth-round victory over League One club Oxford United at the Riverside.
The main thing is that we are in that draw and three years ago, nobody could imagine that we could be in this position.
Karanka made six changes and saw two of the newcomers, ex-Sunderland midfielder Grant Leadbitter and Rudy Gestede, fire his side into a 2-0 lead before a concerted fightback by the visitors prompted a tense conclusion.
But while the Boro faithful left dreaming of Wembley, Karanka and his players swiftly turned their attention back to the business of securing the club’s top-flight status with Saturday’s trip to Crystal Palace looming large, and the Spaniard has put his entire squad on red alert.
He said: “We are in February and we have three or four months ahead that we have to be together. I have to transmit that all of them are important in this team because for three or four months, 24 players are going to be important.
“If I had played with other players [on Saturday], maybe the players who did play could have been a little bit disappointed.
“These kind of games are important for me as a coach to show them that everybody is going to have his chance.”
A relieved Karanka said: “The main thing is that we are in that draw and three years ago, nobody could imagine that we could be in this position.”
Oxford boss Michael Appleton, who was convinced that Cristhian Stuani’s winner should have been chalked off for a foul by Alvaro Negredo on defender Curtis Nelson in the build-up, was proud of his players.
They currently lie in 12th place in the table, seven points shy of the play-off places with games in hand, and also have a Checkatrade Trophy semi-final with Luton to which to look forward.
Appleton said: “Negredo was just pinning Curtis – he was just grabbing his shirt so he couldn’t attack the ball.”
Boro made their early pressure tell with 26 minutes gone after Chris Maguire sent Stewart Downing tumbling inside the box as he ran on to Leadbitter’s through ball.
Leadbitter smashed the resulting penalty high into the roof of Simon Eastwood’s net to open the scoring.
Maguire thought he had levelled when his shot eluded keeper Brad Guzan, although referee Andre Marriner chalked off his effort for a foul by Kane Hemmings on Bernardo.
The visitors’ fortunes took a further turn for the worse when Adama Traore turned Fabio Da Silva’s cross back across goal and Gestede leapt to volley acrobatically past Eastwood.
Oxford rallied when Traore was penalised for a clumsy challenge on Phil Edwards 20 yards out and Maguire curled a delicious 64th-minute free-kick past Guzan’s despairing dive, and they were not finished there.
Seconds later, Guzan could only parry Maguire’s low strike and Antonio Martinez thumped the rebound into the unguarded net to send the 3,376 travelling fans into raptures.
Both sides pressed for a winner amid a tense conclusion, and there were just four minutes remaining when sub Stuani prodded home Fabio’s cross from point-blank range to break Oxford hearts.
Middlesbrough: Guzan, Chambers, Ayala, Bernardo, Da Silva, Leadbitter, Clayton, Downing, Traore (Stuani 72), Gestede (Negredo 86), Fischer (Ramirez 72). Subs not used: Bamford, Gibson, de Roon, Valdes. Booked: Ayala, Chambers, Negredo. Goals: Leadbitter 26 pen, Gestede 34, Stuani 86.
Oxford Utd: Eastwood, Edwards, Dunkley, Nelson, Johnson, Hall, Ledson, Lundstram, Maguire, Hemmings (McAleny 67), Martinez (Sercombe 85). Subs not used: Skarz, Ruffels, Rothwell, Raglan, Agboola. Booked: Ledson, Johnson. Goals: Maguire 64, Martinez 65.
Att: 28,198. Ref: Andre Marriner (West Midlands)