HEAD COACH Aitor Karanka has told his players they will all have important roles to play as Middlesbrough battle for FA Cup glory and Premier League survival.
The Teesside club booked their place in the quarter-finals of the cup, if not without a scare, with Saturday’s victory over League One Oxford at the Riverside Stadium.
Karanka made six changes for the game and saw two incomers, 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.”
Leadbitter’s 26th-minute penalty after Stewart Downing had been bundled over by Chris Maguire set the ball rolling for Boro, and they looked to be cruising when Gestede acrobatically volleyed home a second 11 minutes before the break.
But two goals inside a minute after half-time – Maguire’s deft free-kick and a close-range finish from Antonio Martinez – set up a grandstand finish in which Boro substitute Cristhian Stuani snatched an 86th-minute winner.
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 manager Michael Appleton, who was convinced Stuani’s effort should have been chalked off for a foul by Alvaro Negredo on defender Curtis Nelson during the lead up to the goal, was proud of his players and challenged them to build on the performance.
Middlesbrough: Guzan, Chambers, Ayala, Bernardo, Da Silva, Leadbitter, Clayton, Downing, Traore (Stuani 72), Gestede (Negredo 86), Fischer (Ramirez 72). Unused substitutes: Bamford, Gibson, de Roon, Valdes.
Oxford United: Eastwood, Edwards, Dunkley, Nelson, Johnson, Hall, Ledson, Lundstram, Maguire, Hemmings (McAleny 67), Martinez (Sercombe 85). Unused substitutes: Skarz, Ruffels, Rothwell, Raglan, Agboola.
Referee: A Marriner (West Midlands).