Preview: Arsenal v Middlesbrough (Sunday, 4pm)
17:12 12 February 2015
Relegated from the Premier League in 2009, Middlesbrough have rarely threatened to return – but there is a growing feeling on Teesside that this could be their year.
Boro have flourished since Spanish coach Aitor Karanka arrived to replace Tony Mowbray in the Riverside dugout at the end of 2013 and they moved to the top of the Championship with a 2-1 win at Blackpool on Tuesday.
Karanka’s team put together an eight-match unbeaten run in the autumn –including their drawn Capital One Cup tie at Liverpool, eventually settled after a record-breaking penalty shoot-out that finished 14-13 in the hosts’ favour.
However, Boro’s current sequence puts that in the shade – they have won their last six games in all competitions and have not been beaten since a 2-0 loss to promotion rivals Ipswich just before Christmas.
Their defensive record is far and away the best in the Championship, with 20 goals conceded in 30 games, and they also claimed the FA Cup scalp of Manchester City, triumphing 2-0 at the Etihad Stadium.
Karanka has made good use of his past association with Jose Mourinho by borrowing several Chelsea players, including defenders Kenneth Omeruo and Tamas Kalas and forward Patrick Bamford.
Bamford has made a significant impact, netting 11 goals to date – although he is one behind former Ipswich man Grant Leadbitter, who forms part of a solid midfield partnership with Adam Clayton.
Lee Tomlin is also in double figures, while Boro’s other attacking options include Ghana international winger Albert Adomah, Spanish forward Kike and on-loan Belgian frontman Jelle Vossen.
Cesc Fabregas registered a goal in each half at the Emirates in April 2009 as the Gunners ran out 2-0 winners against a Middlesbrough side sliding towards the drop.
Boro, who have drawn on their other two previous visits to the Emirates, last tasted victory against Arsenal seven years ago, with Tomas Rosicky scoring a late consolation as the visitors went down 2-1 at the Riverside.
The two sides last met in the FA Cup during the 2003-04 season, with Middlesbrough’s Joseph Desire-Job cancelling out Dennis Bergkamp’s opener at Highbury before Freddie Ljungberg’s double and a David Bentley strike secured Arsenal’s 4-1 fourth round victory.
Brighton were no pushovers in the last round – and the in-form Championship leaders should be even less so. This looks like a 1-1 draw and a Riverside replay.