Aitor Karanka issues strong message to his struggling Middlesbrough players
Aitor Karanka has ordered Middlesbrough to approach each of their last 12 Premier League games as if they were cup finals in the battle for survival.
Boro have made it to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, where they will face Manchester City next weekend, but head coach Karanka wants his players to treat each of their remaining league games as sudden-death clashes.
The first of those will come at Stoke on Saturday, with the Teessiders clear of the relegation zone only on goal difference and having not tasted top-flight victory since December 17.
The barren run continued with last Saturday's disappointing 1-0 defeat by fellow strugglers Crystal Palace.
Asked if the remaining games would be treated like cup finals, Karanka said: "It's the best way, to approach every game forgetting the other games because I don't think it's good to try to guess how many points we are going to take in the next one, two or three games.
"Nobody expected to lose against Crystal Palace, especially after our performances against good teams like Everton, and we lost.
"I said at the beginning of the season that we were going to be fighting until the last day. We have another 12 games and until the last day, I will be and the team will be working and trying to do our best."
Promoted Boro have now gone nine league games without a win since they trounced Swansea 3-0 at the Riverside Stadium before Christmas, and a return of just four points from a possible 27 has seen a healthy advantage over the bottom three evaporate.
However, Karanka is refusing to contemplate anything less than the minimum 17th-place finish he has targeted all season, which is exactly where the team currently sit.
Asked how he ensures his players maintain belief that they can get themselves out of trouble, he said: "It starts from me as a coach because if I am the first one who goes on to the pitch with my head looking at the floor, they are going to feel the same.
"I trust them, I have said always that I trust them and that's the only way, to trust your players, because they have shown me a lot of times that I can trust them."
Middlesbrough have scored just 19 goals in their 26 league games to date, the fewest in the division, and while they have conceded only 28, the statistics suggest clean sheets will be invaluable if they are to get themselves out of trouble.
To that end, keeping a rejuvenated Peter Crouch at bay this weekend represents a significant challenge.
Karanka said: "At the beginning of the season, nobody expected that he was going to be important this season because he is 36 years old, and he has been important."