Boro must boss their own league
Defeat on Saturday made it three losses for Middlesbrough FC and, in certain quarters, the early season optimism is dissipating somewhat.
Aitor Karanka, however, was quick to point out the harsh realities of life in the Premier League – namely that Boro are essentially operating in a league within a league this season.
Such lofty heights are some years away for Middlesbrough. The club must first seek to build for itself a platform at this level. Crystal Palace, Everton and Spurs are the sides to get the best of Boro in six Premier League games and perhaps the Eagles are a template that Karanka can seek to emulate.
The current Bet365 football betting on relegation suggests that Palace are where Middlesbrough – 7/2 for the drop this season – wish to be in three to four seasons time.
Palace have stabilised themselves in the top flight, finishing 11th, 10th and 15th in the last three seasons. Under Alan Pardew in 2015/16, the club wobbled after Christmas but such was the quality of their early season form that they never truly looked in danger of relegation.
Having found stability, Pardew is looking upwards rather than down. An FA Cup final appearance boosted the club's profile and European ambition is the next logical step.
In the wake of defeat to Everton and Spurs meanwhile Karanka suggested that two teams are 'not in our league' right now. On the face of it, that is a fair assessment from the Boro boss. This season is about staying up. Offer Karanka 17th spot right now and he might accept.
The Spaniard pin-pointed Sunderland and West Brom as being the sort of opposition that Middlesbrough are in direct competition with. It is probably safe to add Burnley, Hull City and Bournemouth to that list. It requires no great leap of faith to imagine that of those six clubs, three might eventually drop out of the Premier League come May.
Stoke, West Ham and Swansea have also endured testing starts and all three have the potential to be drawn into the basement battle. In that context, Middlesbrough's opening five game sequence remains strong.
A point at home against a Stoke team of whom much more can be expected in the months ahead was a fair start. But it is the four from six available away from home against Sunderland and West Brom that could prove invaluable come March and April. Those points have been harvested and, most importantly, those same direct rivals must come to the Riverside in the second half of the campaign.
By then, a much clearer picture will have developed and it isn't beyond expectation that the reverse games be billed as 'relegation six-pointers'.
Of course, if Boro are going to stay up they will have to gain points along the way against teams outside of the relegation fight. Over the course of 38 games, there is nothing so far to suggest that won't happen. But as Karanka has rightly hinted, look after the key battles and the war will be won.
On that score, Middlesbrough must be happy with the early exchanges against teams that are 'in their league'.