Following an impressive second-half display at Griffin Park, Boro will be looking for their third win on the bounce against a resurgent Preston side.
Last Saturday’s match showed two different sides to Middlesbrough. The first-half showed Boro’s physical and defensive capabilities as Brentford resorted to long-range efforts in an attempt to test Darren Randolph. Then in the second-half, Boro built themselves a comfortable lead with great link-up play from Besic and Howson for the opener and then Downing, Fry and Tavernier in a goal that came right from the Boro academy.
Tony Pulis’ men have had to rely on second-half performances quite a few times already this season; as ten of Boro’s 18 fixtures have been goalless at the break. The problem comes when Boro are unable to find that elusive opener and if the opposition go in front, it’s very rare that they are able to leave with a point. Only three times this season have Boro won a match when they’ve gone in level at the break and they’ve only managed to find the net in four of those ten games.
Preston, however, put four past Blackburn in their latest fixture; proving that scoring goals is not currently a dilemma for Alex Neil’s side. Preston are unbeaten in their last eight Championship matches, since a 3-2 defeat at home to free-scoring West Bromwich Albion. At the end of September Preston were bottom of the league, sitting on five points after only winning one match all season. Two months later, they’re four points clear of the drop with Boro and Norwich the only two other unbeaten sides over the past six matches.
Since that defeat two months ago, Preston have found the net 19 times in seven matches, as well as scoring four goals in three of their last four home matches. The Lilywhites also have a man in-form; Callum Robinson has notched in six of his last eight matches and will be Preston’s main threat tomorrow night.
Yet Boro, as noted in so many blog posts before, boast the best defence in the EFL, having only conceded nine goals this season. Not only are the defence well drilled but they also have statistically the best keeper in the division. Darren Randolph has 11 clean sheets already this season as well as having the best save percentage in the league.
You could see just how much keeping out the opposition means to Boro’s backline, in their previous match, when Flint, Randolph and Clayton all pointed at Besic when he failed to block Alan Judge’s low drive. It’s not blaming Besic for conceding but simply highlighting his responsibility when playing in this defensive set-up. If everyone does their job correctly then Judge doesn’t score, Besic needed reminding that he has to stay alert and in position
Especially when coming up against a Preston side who have scored in each of their last 11 matches, Boro will need that defensive solidity if they’re to come away with all three points. They’ll also need to take their chances when they come along and with Hugill scoring three in his past two games, Boro will be hoping he’s able to grab a couple more against his former club.
The last time these sides met, in the league, was at Deepdale on New Year’s Day. Hugill netted for the home side that day as Preston came behind from a Daniel Ayala header to lead 2-1 at the break. In only Pulis’ second match in charge, he made three changes early into the second half axing Assombalonga, Christie and Guedioura in what proved to be the latter’s final game for the club. The changes worked as second-half goals from Howson and Ayala, switched the game back on its head and the Teessider’s left with all three points.
As mentioned above, Hugill will start on the opposite side this time out as he returns to Deepdale for the first time since leaving to join West Ham at the start of the year. His and Tavenier’s goals were the difference against Brentford but it will be interesting to see if Boro’s young winger starts against Preston. Pulis was quite clear that Tavernier was only playing because of Braithwaite’s international commitments, but Tav will have done himself no harm in trying to force his way into the starting eleven.
Boro: Randolph, Fry, Flint, Batth, Friend, Clayton, Besic, Howson, Braithwaite, Downing, Hugill.
Preston: Rudd, Clarke, Huntington, Davies, Earl, Gallagher, Pearson, Barkhuizen, Browne, Robinson, Nmecha.
Picture Credit: Middlesbrough FC