Middlesbrough head coach Aitor Karanka is backing old friend Mauricio Pochettino to challenge for the Premier League title once again this season.
The two men will be in opposing dug-outs on Saturday when Pochettino takes his Tottenham side to the Riverside Stadium, having lost just once in seven games in all competitions so far this term and sitting in third place in the league table.
That is exactly where Spurs finished the last campaign after mounting a genuine title challenge until the final few weeks, and Karanka is expecting a man who like him headed to England as a young coach to maintain the pressure this time around.
He said: “He came from Spain, where he had coached Espanyol in the first division, so it’s different because I came here having been an assistant; I came to the Championship, he came to a big club like Southampton, so there is a lot of difference.
“But it’s true that he is doing an amazing job – it was the same last season because he was close to winning the league and again this season, he is fighting to repeat that.”
The two men were foes before they were friends, coming up against each other in Karanka’s native Spain, where he plied his trade with Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid, while Argentinian Pochettino played for Espanyol.
But they have become friends off the field since, although that will be put to one side briefly on Saturday afternoon.
Karanka said: “We did the licence course together and we have a really good relationship. But after the referee blows the whistle, we are not friends, for sure – just for 90 minutes.”
While Pochettino will arrive on Teesside with his side unbeaten in the league, his opposite number has seen some of the confidence gained by a return of five points from the first nine on offer dissipate in the wake of successive defeats by Crystal Palace and Everton.
However, Karanka is confident that lessons are being learned every week by a team still getting to grips with top-flight football.
He said: “We know that in the Championship, you can for maybe 10, 15 minutes be lost, but sometimes nothing happens; but in the Premier League, 10, 15 minutes lost on the pitch is three goals.
“I don’t want to say the names of Championship teams, but it’s not the same. Even losing last Saturday against Everton and to play this Saturday against Tottenham, for me it is a pleasure.”