IT was perhaps not Aitor Karanka’s wisest move to suggest that Pep Guardiola was not even the best manager in Manchester – let alone the world – before Saturday’s game.
The Middlesbrough head coach, former assistant to Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid, believes that his Manchester City counterpart must win a title before he can be compared to the ‘Special One’ – and you can bet that Guardiola was listening.
Nothing much escapes the attention of the assiduous City chief and the sight of his side comprehensively outclassing a limited Boro line-up rammed those taunts firmly back down Karanka’s throat.
It put the tin lid on a torrid week for Boro and their beleaguered chief.
Three days earlier in a clear effort to foster some togetherness, Boro’s staff and players headed down Yarm High Street for a team bonding lunch and quiz.
But it was City who provided the answers come kick-off after devouring a Boro side with the only thing missing being a feast of goals.
Two goals arrived for the visitors and if it was not for the efforts of goalkeeper Brad Guzan – in quite possibly his final appearance in English football before returning to his native United States – and some errant finishing, it would have been many more.
For Boro, there was the consolation in the fact that City, in the mood they were in on Saturday, would have proved too much for most sides in Europe, let alone this country.
A touch of solace, too, in that the loss did not arrive in the league and entrench the Teessiders further into the relegation quicksand – although they certainly will not be looking forward to City’s league visit to the Riverside on April 29 with a great deal of relish.
The sight of a Boro side keeping going, even accounting for a completely one-sided second half in which City were streets ahead of the hosts, was also something in the circumstances and contrasted markedly with their pitiful, gutless efforts at Stoke and Crystal Palace.
The gaffer has been fighting all week in the press and we have been fighting in training. We need to keep grafting and, hopefully, it will turn. We know we are in a bit of a hole, but that is when you see the characters.Middlesbrough’s Adam Clayton
The honest graft was there if not the guile, but it represents a starting point ahead of ‘11 cup finals’ according to midfield player Adam Clayton.
The Mancunian did not give it up against his first club – just as he will not do against the red side of Manchester this coming weekend as he and his team-mates seek to rescue Boro’s ailing league campaign against Mourinho’s men.
On Saturday’s events and a soul-searching week behind closed doors, Clayton said: “They (City) made it hard at times. But I don’t think you can say we did not try or have a go.
“We are under the cosh from all corners and we will keep fighting. The gaffer has been fighting all week in the press and we have been fighting in training. We need to keep grafting and, hopefully, it will turn.
“We know we are in a bit of a hole, but that is when you see the characters.
“We have had a few face-to-face (meetings) this week with many different people. We have had talks and had it out and I can’t tell you how much we are trying to turn it around and we are doing everything we can.
“We are fighting, arguing and trying to get it right. We went out for some food and everyone is together and we know what we need to do.
“It is about turning that one result into a win and it will turn around.”
Boro’s game plan was decimated just three minutes in – from the moment that David Silva finished off Pablo Zabaleta’s cross – and it was hard not to fear for the hosts, given the early evidence.
The outstanding Leroy Sane missed a glorious chance to make it two but, to their credit, Boro regrouped and troubled City for a 20-minute spell.
It almost yielded a leveller with Claudio Bravo spilling a goalbound header from Rudy Gestede but, at the other end, there was always the lingering feeling that City could step it up if they needed to.
They did so in a mesmerising second half, with Guzan making a series of impressive stops to prevent a rout – denying Aguero, Silva and Sane, among others.
The second goal which seemingly took an eternity to arrive finally came when Aguero clinically dispatched Sane’s centre and, thankfully for Boro’s sake, there were no further concessions.
Still, there was plenty of food for thought for Karanka, but he can count on his dressing room, according to Clayton.
He added: “Aitor is a grafter and he puts everything he can into the job. That is why he gets so upset if we lose and happy when we win.
“I don’t think anyone can try harder and watch as many videos or study the opponent as much. We know we have a top manager in charge and are right behind him and need to keep fighting.
“The amount of things we have been through together and amount of arguments we have had and the amount of love everyone has given each other, I don’t think there is a tighter group and I have got friends for life here now.
“It is one of the tightest, if not the tightest dressing room I have been in.”