Aitor Karanka has vowed to fight until the end to keep Middlesbrough in the Premier League after seeing his FA Cup dreams dashed.
Boro’s hopes of securing a semi-final trip to Wembley were ended by Manchester City on Saturday as Pep Guardiola’s men eased to sixth-round victory at the Riverside Stadium.
But as Spaniard Guardiola turned his attention to Wednesday night’s Champions League showdown in Monaco, compatriot Karanka was rolling up his sleeves for the battle against relegation buoyed by what he had seen.
Despite conceding after just three minutes and losing both striker Rudy Gestede and defender Bernardo to injury, the latter departure prompting the introduction of 19-year-old Dael Fry, the Teessiders competed for long periods before eventually succumbing.
Asked if Boro could have made life more difficult for City earlier in the game, head coach Karanka said: “It’s difficult to do it for 90 minutes, especially when you have to make two substitutions which you didn’t expect, when you have to play with a kid who has an amazing future and who once again showed he can be an amazing player.
“It’s difficult, but we just have to keep believing in this group of players and we will fight until the end.”
For all Boro made a game of it, they were indebted to the excellence of American keeper Brad Guzan, who will leave the club at the end of the season to return to the MLS.
Beaten by David Silva with barely two minutes gone, Guzan made a series of fine saves to keep the visitors at bay both before and after Sergio Aguero doubled his side’s lead with 67 minutes gone, although his heroics came as no surprise to Karanka.
He said: “It’s not a surprise for me. Maybe for some, yes, but not for me it’s not a surprise. When I wanted him, it’s because I knew he was a really, really good goalkeeper.”
It took City a little more than two minutes to exploit Boro’s recent defensive frailty and establish a bridgehead on Teesside.
Yaya Toure was afforded all the time he needed to lift a pass into the path of on-rushing full-back Pablo Zabaleta and although Raheem Sterling made a mess of his shot when the ball came in, Silva behind him did not despite Guzan’s best efforts.
Boro were simply too passive in the opening stages with Toure, Silva and Leroy Sane allowed to roam freely with support from full-backs Zabaleta and Gael Clichy, and it looked to be only a matter of time before the visitors increased their lead.
They might have done just that had Sane delivered his 16th-minute cross more accurately to Aguero after being played in behind Antonio Barragan.
The home side were enjoying a measure of success with the long ball as John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi struggled to deal with lone striker Rudy Gestede in the air, and the frontman set up midfielder Marten de Roon to half-volley wide before forcing a save from Claudio Bravo with a firm 22nd-minute header.
But with Boro starting to press higher up the pitch, chances arrived in greater numbers and Cristhian Stuani called upon Bravo with a 37th-minute downward header from De Roon’s cross.
City resumed in ominous fashion as Aguero saw Guzan help his 51st-minute flick from Sterling’s cross on to the post and Zabaleta blasted just wide seconds later, and the keeper had to come to the rescue once again to deny Sane after he had exchanged passes with Silva.
Guzan tipped away Silva’s 64th-minute shot as it headed towards the bottom corner and then repeated the feat from Sane’s viciously-curling effort seconds later, but there was nothing he could do to prevent Aguero doubling the lead from Sane’s inch-perfect 67th-minute cross.
The former Aston Villa man had to block another Silva shot with his legs and claw out Sterling’s late goal-bound effort after Stones had cleared Fabio’s 77th-minute header off the line, but the trip to Wembley had been booked long before.
Middlesbrough: Guzan, Barragan, Bernardo (Fry 50), Gibson, Da Silva, de Roon, Clayton, Leadbitter (Ramirez 66), Traore, Gestede (Negredo 26), Stuani. Subs Not Used: Fischer, Valdes, Forshaw, Husband. Booked: Barragan, Leadbitter, Traore, de Roon.
Man City: Bravo, Zabaleta, Stones, Otamendi, Clichy, Toure (Fernando 86), Sterling, De Bruyne, Silva, Sane (Nolito 70), Aguero (Iheanacho 90). Subs Not Used: Kolarov, Caballero, Delph, Fernandinho. Goals: Silva 3, Aguero 67.
Att: 32,228 Ref: Mike Dean (Wirral).