Last week’s performance against Derby County was appalling, yet the result was actually quite encouraging. Derby came into the match after back-to-back wins against serious promotion contenders. A 2-1 home win against Sheffield United was followed up by a demolition job against West Bromwich Albion where the Rams turned over Darren Moore’s side 4-2 on their own patch.
On paper Boro’s 1-1 draw last weekend looked fantastic after clawing back a goal to draw a match that they were never truly in. However, the performance was in complete contrast to that positivity. Boro had no outlet of attack and they looked like they were playing against Barcelona. Derby controlled the possession and continued to work the Boro defence, creating opening after opening.
Yet, Boro still managed to walk away from the game with a point. Derby could have and probably should have gone in at the break at least two goals up but the matter of fact is that at 1-0, Boro always have a chance of getting back into the game. A typical football cliché is that the sign of a good side is that when things aren’t going your way, you manage to take at least a point from the game; Boro were able to do that against Derby.
However, Boro will have to be much better away at Stoke City who are, despite their league position, still a side looking to bounce back to the Premier League on the first attempt. The Potters find themselves in a similar situation to what Boro were last season. Having spent almost £40m in the summer, there is huge expectation that Stoke will be challenging for the Championship title this season but so far that hasn’t lived up to reality.
Gary Rowett is a similar manager to Garry Monk in that they both like to play attacking football and they both moved clubs to try and build a squad capable of smashing the division. Another similarity is that both are struggling to live up to the expectations placed upon them.
The last time these sides met was in 2017, in the Premier League. Stoke ran out 2-0 winners that day, as a brace from Marko Arnautovic dropped Boro into the relegation zone for the first time that season. The Austrian striker was undoubtedly the best player on the pitch that afternoon and the saving grace for Boro is that they won’t have to face him after his summer transfer move to West Ham United that same summer.
In terms of team selection for Boro, there’s been a sickness bug going around the squad and so it’s unclear at the time of writing who will be available for Saturday’s game. Lewis Wing, Marcus Tavernier and Jordan Hugill all impressed in the midweek win against Premier League Crystal Palace. Boro fans have been calling for Wing and Tavernier to start in the first team for a number of weeks and their performances on Wednesday evening will have done them no harm in trying to convince Pulis to put them in the matchday squad.
For Stoke, they’re expected to stick to the same eleven after beating Bristol City 1-0 at Ashton gate in their previous game. The likes of Darren Fletcher, Jack Butland and Joe Allen have all played Premier League football for a number of years and still possess that level of quality – Stoke are a side that Boro should certainly be wary of.
An evening kick-off means that the Sheffield United, Norwich City and West Bromwich Albion results will already be known going into this fixture. If those results go Boro’s way, then Tony Pulis’ men could find themselves at the top of the table if they are able to win at the Bet 365 Stadium. With Boro’s cup win in mid-week, a tantalising fixture at home to Burton awaits for Boro to book their place in the semi-final. But, first up is an away trip to Stoke City as Boro look to pick up where they left off against Crystal Palace.
Boro: Randolph, McNair, Ayala, Flint, Batth, Friend, Clayton, Howson, Wing, Braithwaite, Downing, Assombalonga.
Stoke: Butland, Edwards, Williams, Martins Indi, Pieters, Ince, Woods, Fletcher, Allen, Berahino, Afobe.
Picture Credit: Middlesbrough FC