Good Friday on Teesside
I’m not sure whether the fixture planners had any foresight to how the Championship season might progress but they’ve managed to give us, as league leaders, games against second and third for our Easter fixtures.
It was often said that Easter was the time when things were decided. With clubs still having seven or eight games to play, that’s unlikely, but we know that should things go well then we could be promoted by the time the chocolate eggs have been devoured and even as early as tonight should we win and Luton not having won at Millwall earlier in the day.
Tonight though will see us playing a very difficult away game against a Middlesbrough side who have made great strides forward since changing manager in October. When they sacked Chris Wilder in early October, they sat in the bottom three in the league with relegation looking a real threat. They’d moved out of the bottom three, just, when Michael Carrick was appointed and so began the climb up the table.
Carrick’s first game in charge was actually a defeat at Preston, but it’s one of just five defeats in his 23 league games in charge with all of them coming away from the Riverside, the others at Burnley, Sunderland, West Brom and amazingly last week at Huddersfield where they conceded four goals.
They’ve amassed fifty points in those games and will be a side determined to get back to winning ways after the reverse at Huddersfield has left them six points behind second place Sheffield United and with a game more played.
To highlight how tough it will be, they are unbeaten at home under Carrick having won eight and drawn two of the ten they’ve played since he arrived at Middlesbrough. Their two home defeats this season have come against Cardiff and Blackburn in September and October respectively, the second of them coming while Leo Percovich was in temporary charge.
The danger man in terms of goals is clearly Chuba Akpom (pictured below). When Carrick took over, Akpom had scored four league goals this season, two of them coming against Sheffield United early in the season. Since, he’s added a further nineteen which included a Boxing Day hat trick against Wigan.
Boro are very much a team with goals in them and their 71 league goals is only three less than our total and twelve more than third best Sheffield United. However, they’ve conceded 46 goals and that’s as many as any team in the top half of the league, a total they share with twelfth place Sunderland.
They go into today’s game with news that Carrick has won the March Manager of the Month Award for the Championship although Akpom, along with Nathan Tella, who were both nominated, have seen Coventry’s Viktor Gyökeres pick up the player award.
Carrick, asked about Burnley, said: “They’re top of the league for a reason,” but he added: “It’s a game for us to enjoy and play as well as we can do. We have gained a lot of confidence and belief over the last few months. We look forward to this game.”
He also confirmed that he had just about a clean bill of health ahead of the game with just a few niggles. “At this part of the season, everyone has niggles,” he said. “I can probably count on one hand the amount of times I was 100% for the game. That’s natural, every player will be similar, but we’re in good shape for the weekend.”
The Middlesbrough team last time out at Huddersfield was: Zack Steffen, Tommy Smith, Paddy McNair, Darragh Lenihan, Ryan Giles, Jonny Howson, Hayden Hackney, Marcus Forss, Chuba Akpom, Aaron Ramsey, Cameron Archer. Subs: Liam Roberts, Marc Bola, Alex Mowatt, Dael Fry, Dan Barlaser, Riley McGree, Matt Crooks.
We know this could be the day but, there again, it might be the case that we kick off tonight unable to confirm promotion. With eight games still to play, however, I think even those with their glasses half empty or worse will surely accept that it’s a matter of when.
The maths are simple. As things stand, Middlesbrough and Luton can both reach 88 points and that means five more from our remaining games will secure a fourth promotion to the Premier League as an incredible season moves towards its close.
Relaxing ends to seasons usually come when you are comfortably in mid-table. It was like that three years ago when we first had to experience behind closed doors games. It was similar just over a decade ago when we had a couple of Championship seasons with little to play for come the season’s end.
I don’t think any of us could have expected us to be relaxed with eight games to go, definitely not in the position we hold at the top of the league, but this team of ours has been so good for much of the season, kicking off with that incredible first half at Huddersfield.
Tonight, come 8 p.m., I’m not sure I’ll be so relaxed as we take on one of the best teams in the league based on home form. We are one of two better overall at home and a positive result tonight will also see us go top based on away form with Sheffield United currently having picked up one more point on the road.
Vincent Kompany said yesterday: “I’m excited. It’s the two toughest games we could have had in this division. We couldn’t have asked for two better games to test ourselves in and I think the players are looking forward to it as myself and the coaching staff are and hopefully the fans as well. Middlesbrough are a great side with a strong attacking threat, as are Sheffield United, so it’s going to be two tough matches for us over a quick period.”
Looking at the opposition and their manager Michael Carrick, he added: “I don’t think there’s any surprise there, the work he was doing at Manchester United as well and how he was as a player, the standards that you could see and the demands on everybody, it’s no surprise that they have got to where they’ve got.
“We know it’s going to be difficult but we’re a team that’s in really good form and have been throughout the majority of the season, so it’s going to be an exciting game for sure.”
No outfield player has played as often as Brownhill this season. He’s missed just three league games. He was ruled out of the game at Sheffield United in November through suspension and had to sit out the recent wins against Wigan and Hull because of the injury. He claimed yesterday that he was now fully fit, perhaps 99%, and will almost certainly start tonight.
Kompany confirmed that Jay Rodriguez remains out but other than that he’s got a fully fit squad including Lyle Foster who has now arrived back from international duty, hopefully with a valid passport in hand.
Our team last week against Sunderland was: Arijanet Muric, Connor Roberts, Taylor Harwood-Bellis, Jordan Beyer, Ian Maatsen, Josh Cullen, Josh Brownhill, Manuel Benson, Nathan Tella, Anass Zaroury, Ashley Barnes. Subs: Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Hjalmar Ekdal, Jack Cork, Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, Vitinho, Scott Twine, Michael Obafemi.
LAST TIME WE WERE THERE
It was way back in December 2015 when we last played a Championship game at Middlesbrough. We were beaten 1-0, the Middlesbrough goal scored by Emilio Nsue. However, we returned just over three weeks later and came from behind to beat them 2-1 in the FA Cup with our goals scored by Rouwen Hennings and Stephen Ward.
Our only visit since came in the following season in the Premier League. We’d just ended a run of seven games without a win with a 1-0 home win against Stoke in which George Boyd scored his final Burnley goal.
With seven games remaining in the season, we were twelfth in the table and looking reasonably comfortable as we aimed to avoid relegation from the league for the first time.
By this time, Aitor Karanka had left Middlesbrough and Steve Agnew was in temporary charge. Given the need for results, he’d selected a very attack minded team for their midweek game at Hull, but they were beaten 4-2 and for this game he reverted to a more conservative line up.
We were so comfortable in the first half and looked the only side likely to break the deadlock. We stepped things up too in the second half until Middlesbrough threw on some subs to try and win it. Matt Lowton was forced to make a brilliant headed clearance off the line from a Stewart Downing free kick but that was about it from the home side.
“We are staying up,” was the defiant cry from the Burnley fans at the final whistle as the players came over. The point had left us eight points clear of the bottom three with only six games remaining.
The teams were;
Middlesbrough: Victor Valdes, Espinoza Bernardo (Patrick Bamford 83), Daniel Ayala, Ben Gibson, Antonio Barragán, Grant Leadbitter, Adam Clayton, Adam Forshaw, Stewart Downing, Cristhian Stuani (Alvaro Negredo 58), Rudy Gestede (Adama Traoré 69). Subs not used: Brad Guzan, Viktor Fischer, Marton de Roon, Dael Fry.
Burnley: Tom Heaton, Matt Lowton, Michael Keane, Ben Mee, Stephen Ward, George Boyd, Jeff Hendrick, Joey Barton, Robbie Brady, Ashley Barnes (James Tarkowski 90+4), Andre Gray (Sam Vokes 62). Subs not used: Nick Pope, Jon Flanagan, Ashley Westwood, Scott Arfield, Dan Agyei.Follow UpTheClarets:
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