Middlesbrough boss Aitor Karanka believes Chelsea’s lack of European football this season can boost their bid to reclaim the Premier League crown.
Antonio Conte’s men travel to the sold-out Riverside Stadium on Sunday on a five-match winning streak less than two months after the Italian’s position was said to be under threat.
Karanka believes Chelsea’s emphatic 5-0 win over Everton a fortnight ago emphasised their qualities and underlined the advantage of not having also to contend with European competition in this campaign.
Karanka said of Chelsea: “They are definitely one of the favourites to win the league, especially when they are not playing Champions League football.
“[Conte] has settled in really well. They’re really consistent, they’re scoring goals and it’s difficult to score against them. They are taking advantage of not playing midweek games in Europe.”
Like Conte, Karanka is enjoying an upsurge in fortunes after three games unbeaten for Boro culminating in their hard-fought 1-1 draw against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium a fortnight ago.
Karanka, who celebrates three years at the helm this month, made his debut as an ITV pundit in midweek and admitted there were times earlier in the campaign when his own position could have been under threat.
But a dominant 2-0 win over Bournemouth and those tough draws at Arsenal and City has changed the mood on Teesside, and his side now go into Sunday’s glamorous showdown hovering a point clear of the bottom three.
Karanka added: “We won the game against Bournemouth and that was really important — we are more confident but we know it is a really tough game.
“The best way to get confidence is to add points to the table — it is not easy to get results against Arsenal and Manchester City.
“Now we have to think about Chelsea and think we can do something — we have to play 100 percent or more.”
Karanka has mixed news on the injury front with Gaston Ramirez returning to the line-up after missing the Etihad Stadium draw due to suspension.
Cristhian Stuani has also returned from international duty unscathed but there is a major doubt over defender George Friend, who has picked up a knee injury in training.
With Dani Ayala still ruled out with an ankle injury, Karanka could opt to bring in Brazilian Fabio da Silva should Friend fail a late fitness test.