Despite the League Cup being Boro’s only major trophy in their 142-year history, this season Pulis has been using this year’s competition as a chance to assess his fringe players.
To some, it might be seen as disrespecting the Cup by not playing your best 11 and not giving yourself the most optimum chance of progressing through to the next round. For others, there are bigger fish to fry this season and Boro should be putting all their efforts into achieving promotion and disregard the League Cup entirely.
Yet, there’s no getting away from Boro’s recent poor run of form at home, they’ve only scored once at home in the previous four matches and even that came in the form of an own goal. If Boro are serious about promotion this year, then that form will have to drastically change. The League Cup could be an excellent opportunity to play the same team and build up some confidence against a Premier League side heading into the game against Stoke at the weekend.
Alternatively, if Palace play a similar starting line-up to the previous round it could be a very tough evening for the home side. Andros Towsend, Patrick van Aanholt and Max Meyer all started away at West Brom in the third-round tie and Palace even have Wilfried Zaha available for selection this time out, the Ivorian forward was injured and sat on the sidelines in the previous round.
Pulis could still opt to continue paying a second-string side but that’s not what fans want to see when a Premier League side come to town. The Boro faithful will be wanting to watch their first team regulars go up against a tough Palace side and see if they can compete against a consistent mid-table top flight team.
Granted the League Cup may not be the main priority this season, however, that doesn’t mean Boro can’t give a good account of themselves in what is a great opportunity to get to a quarter-final of a domestic competition. Boro, of course, go into this game as underdogs, but that somewhat suits them as they haven’t exactly played teams off the park when they’ve gone in as favourites.
The League Cup has given Boro fans some brilliant memories in the last few decades, the 2-1 win over Bolton at the Millennium Stadium, the 1-0 win over Arsenal in the semi-final first leg and more recently the penalty-shootout win against Man United only two years ago this week. This upcoming game against Palace may not rank well against those fixtures but if Boro are victorious on Wednesday night, a quarter-final tie against one of the “bigger teams” could await. If that were to happen who wouldn’t be dreaming about upsetting the likes of Pochettino, Guardiola or Sarri all over again?
But, first up Boro have to get past Palace, and Roy Hodgson’s men have just drawn at home to an Arsenal side that had won 11 on the bounce. It highlights just how difficult a task it’s going to be on Wednesday night. Palace also tend to do better away from home – they’ve yet to win at Selhurst Park this season yet have already won four times on the road in all competitions this season.
Boro, on the other hand, could consider themselves fortunate to still be in the competition. They edged past Notts County on penalties, only just beat Rochdale 2-1 and came from behind twice to send the game to penalties away at Preston. Yes, Boro took their chances and not missing a spot-kick always helps in a shootout, but this time they’re coming up against much stronger opposition. If Boro find themselves needing to come from behind once again, there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to unlock the Palace defence quite as easily as they could against the previous three teams.
Although, whoever Pulis selects to play on Wednesday night can play without fear. Boro aren’t expected to outplay or overturn Crystal Palace, however, it’s when Boro aren’t anticipated to play well that they often pull a result out of the bag. It’s likely that the youngsters of Tavernier, Wing and Fletcher will all start in this game and if they put a performance in against a Premier League side, it gives Pulis a real selection headache in regards to who starts against Stoke at the weekend. Boro currently find themselves in a bit of a slump at home, a packed out Riverside under the lights could really be the boost these players need to start their next winning run.
The League Cup might not be the priority for Boro this season, but if a win on Wednesday night develops into a run that ends in them topping the table, we might look back at this week’s Cup game as the turning point which started off Boro’s winning run, culminating in their return to the Premier League.
Picture Credit: Middlesbrough FC