Middlesbrough make promotion push with Stuani swoop & Downing deal
Middlesbrough were on the receiving end of play-off pain back in May, losing the Championship final essentially in the first-half to two Norwich City goals after coach Aitor Karanka gambled on loan star Patrick Bamford’s fitness.
The Spanish coach, a protege of Jose Mourinho, will hope to learn from such mistakes as this and going gung-ho at Fulham during the regular season that resulted in dropped points.
Coral’s Championship promotion betting market has two recent beaten play-off finalists in Boro and Derby County at its head and, given their respective recruitment drives, it’s easy to see why.
There is one major different, though. The Rams, despite a change of coach and thrusting managerial novice Paul Clement centre stage, have been able to make their loan signings permanent. Darren Bent was a Bosman addition from Aston Villa, but County had to splash a club record fee to take Tom Ince permanently.
If only Middlesbrough could’ve been so fortunate. They reportedly had a deadline to decide whether to take up an option on Belgian striker Jelle Vossen, but instead opted for caution and to wait for promotion before buying him outright.
Boro failed, however, and now Vossen is on the books at Burnley, who may be among those challenging Karanka’s club for a space in the top-flight. Losing Bamford was inevitable once they did not go up, and now it is understood parent club Chelsea want a Premier League loan for the England Under-21 attacker.
That has left the Teesside team needing to replace the bulk of their goals and forward options. How has notoriously canny chairman Steve Gibson gone about this? By bringing hometown hero Stewart Downing back for a second spell and making Uruguay international striker Christian Stuani the spearhead of Middlesbrough’s promotion push.
Getting Downing to drop down a division is a real coup, but the winger turned creative central operator saw his playmaking duties come under threat from Dimitri Payet the moment West Ham United brought him in from Marseille.
Downing hailed Gibson’s influence upon his re-joining The Riverside outfit: “This move wouldn’t have happened without him. It was a difficult transfer to do but the chairman had a lot of faith in me and drove things through. I know what I have got to do to repay him and that is help the team win promotion.”
In leaving Premier League football behind in favour of a return to his native Northeast and sacrificing a Europa League adventure at the Hammers, it appears Downing is forsaking any hopes of an England squad space ahead of Euro 2016. He has been an outsider in many ways with regards to international football, only really a Three Lions regular under old Boro boss Steve McClaren.
Stuani is in a similar situation with Uruguay. Never really first-choice throughout his own career because of the likes of Sebastian Abreu, Edinson Cavani, Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez, any international ambitions he may have will be swept aside as younger names like Diego Rolan and Jonathan Rodriguez come through.
What’s great for Middlesbrough is that both Downing and Stuani should be focusing on club commitments hereafter. The latter netted 15 goals at mid-table La Liga side Espanyol, eternally in the shadow of Catalan and city rivals Barcelona.
Downing’s reinvention as a creative force in advanced midfield could prompt a change of shape for Karanka to just one out-and-out striker, though his time at The Riverside to date has been marked by tactical flexibility.
Happily, Stuani can play his part in this too, as he has been prepared during what international opportunities he’s had to operate out wide as well as up top. Boro retain more orthodox wingers in Albert Adomah and Mustapha Carayol, and there’s also Spanish striker Kike and the versatile Lee Tomlin among their attacking options too.
Built on a bedrock of the best Championship defence last term, Karanka and Gibson are ensuring promotion rivals Derby don’t hog all the Championship headlines this summer. Middlesbrough are 11/4 to make a Premier League return after several seasons away, and could actually be better equipped to do so if prodigal son Downing and Stuani are as effective as billed.