OVER many years, games against Everton – particularly at Goodison Park – have often proved watersheds for Middlesbrough.
After a sound, if unspectacular start to the Premier League season, Boro’s first bona fide test arrives on Merseyside this tea-time against an Everton side who are showing discernible signs of rediscovering their ruthlessness at both ends of the pitch under Ronald Koeman.
Goodison holds good and bad memories for Teessiders over the years, with the famous old stadium witnessing two-thirds of a memorable trilogy of never-to-be-forgotten FA Cup ties for Bruce Rioch’s ‘Boro Babes’ side of 1987-88.
Rather less fondly, Boro fans will also recall punishing and heavy winter losses at Everton in the 1995-96 and 1998-99 seasons, from which Bryan Robson’s side took time to recover on both occasions – the visitors going down to 4-0 and 5-0 reverses respectively.
As far as Robson is concerned, those memories are at least counter-balanced by a sweet Juninho-inspired victory early on in the 1996-97 season, when Boro, briefly, lit up the Premier League almost exactly two decades ago with a 2-1 win.
Onto the here and now and head coach Aitor Karanka will be seeking a response from his charges following a disappointing 2-1 home reverse to Crystal Palace.
Both goals were proof of the unforgiving nature of the top flight if you show deficiencies – however momentarily – and Everton are likely to be just as unforgiving as Palace were if Boro blot their copybook today, perhaps moreso.
Boro face an in-form Everton side who produced an imposing 3-0 victory at Sunderland on Monday, with the power, pace and panache that the Blues displayed in front of the TV cameras firing out a warning to the Teessiders ahead of another televised test.
Karanka and Boro do have contemporary experience of Everton, who showed their prowess in easing to a 2-0 League Cup win on Teesside last year.
Karanka said: “I think they are more or less the same as last season. The two goals that they scored (against us) were more or less the same as they scored against Sunderland (on Monday).
“The difference now is that they have Ronald Koeman. It was sad for me when Roberto (Martinez) got sacked, it was disappointing for me as he is a good manager, but the atmosphere at the club now is different.
“Looking at that game (against Everton) in December and now 10 months later, we can learn exactly the same from our last game against Crystal Palace.
“If we let the player deliver the ball, if we allow Christian Benteke or Romelu Lukaku to head a ball, we are going to have problems.
“We have to be careful and concentrate for 90 minutes to get a result.”
Koeman has targeted European football for Everton this season, but he regards talk of the club potentially securing a Champions League spot as “not realistic”.
They are in third place in the table, but ahead of the home clash with Middlesbrough, the Dutchman played down suggestions of Everton challenging for a top-four finish.
He said: “Why after the win on Monday do I need to change from ‘fight for European football’?.
“Now we need to fight for the Champions League? I don’t know, I think that’s not realistic.
“I think it is a big ambition, what I mentioned – that, really, we can fight for Europe.
“We need to continue, and this Saturday is the next one. We need to prepare for that.”
Everton finished 11th in each of the last two seasons.
Asked what he is doing at the club different to how they operated before, Koeman said: “The intensity in training is higher than it was. I believe how you train is how you play.
“Of course, we gave attention to the set-plays. They conceded too many goals from set-plays.
“And (I have given) more responsibility to the strikers and midfield players to help support the defenders.
“Defending starts at the front, not at the back, and it is a whole team performance.
“I think the defensive signings we have made – Ashley Williams, the energy of Idrissa Gueye in the midfield – is a big help for the team. Everybody is happy – but (they have to) keep working.”