‘Play with freedom’
Reporter: by KEITH McHUGH
Date online: 12 August 2014
ATHLETIC boss Lee Johnson insists his new-look team can play without fear and impress home fans seeing them for the first time at SportsDirect.com Park tonight.
Middlesbrough are the visitors for a Capital One Cup first-round tie (kick-off 7.45pm) which pits Athletic against a team from a division higher.
Athletic kicked off their Sky Bet League One campaign with a 2-2 draw at Colchester on Saturday, while Boro were impressive in defeating Birmingham 2-0 at home in the Championship.
Managed by former Real Madrid defender Aitor Karanka, Boro are fancied by many to make a big impact this season.
And the Spanish influence is not restricted to the managerial hot seat.
Daniel Ayala and Kiku were the men on target for Boro in their winning start to their Championship campaign.
Athletic will certainly start the cup-tie as underdogs, but Johnson reckons that could be to his team’s advantage.
He said: “They are a good side — he is a good manager, this guy.
“We know quite a lot about them. They have some really good players there, including (Albert) Adomah, who I played with at Bristol City. He can turn a game on its head.
“And they have many experienced Championship individuals and internationals
“They are a big club, and it’s big game for us. Of course, it’s a tough game, but certainly one in which we should have no fear.
“There is no expectation in the football world for us to go and win, so the lads can go and play with freedom and enjoy themselves.
“A lot of our players, particularly the new ones, will be really looking forward to it so they can show the home fans what they are about.”
Johnson may make a couple of injury-enforced changes from the team which drew at Colchester, but is not revealing whom the possible absentees are.
Latest signing George Elokobi is in contention for a place in the heart of a defence which at times looked shaky on Saturday.
The powerful 28-year-old Cameroonian came on as a substitute 10 minutes from time and Johnson was pleased with what he saw.
“I thought his personality was infectious when he came on,” said the manager.
“I was disappointed with the way we squeezed the back lines — normally, we are so good at it.
“(But) sometimes without a (Adam) Lockwood or Elokabi-type it can get a bit loose back there.”
Midfielder Carl Winchester, who pleased Johnson with a fine display against the U’s, may still be under pressure for his place from Timothee Dieng, who impressed so much in pre-season matches.
Winchester is one of a handful of players Johnson considers need to be treated carefully given previous injuries, and Dieng may either start tonight or come off the substitutes’ bench.
“He was really unlucky (not to start at Colchester,” said Johnson.
“It was a decision whether to play him or Winchester, and I thought Winchester played very, very well.
“He (Dieng) was super unlucky, to be honest, because we really like him.
“If I had been able to play 12 he would have been the next one in. But I am sure he will feature at some stage in the next couple of games.”
The manager will be hoping tonight’s team can produce more positive moments than the occasional negative ones which irked him on Saturday.
He said: “A lot of the stuff was really good and the stuff that wasn’t so good should be quickly ironed out.”
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