Weblog: The football punter

Boro in better shape for crucial playoff with Villa

Sky Bet Championship playoff semi-final, first leg
Sky Sports Football, 5.15pm Saturday

Tony Pulis achieved the second of his two promotions when leading Stoke into the Premier League in 2008 but he has been revitalised by his December appointment at Middlesbrough and can steer the Teessiders to a vital victory over Aston Villa.

There is a huge amount at stake with Middlesbrough anxious to make the most of their first and best opportunity to bounce back from relegation and Villa desperate to recover the top-flight status they lost in 2016.

It will be a tense occasion, yet is unlikely to faze either of the managers, who are well-versed in dealing with big games.

Villa manager Steve Bruce is a master at getting out of the second tier, having won promotions with Birmingham and Hull.

He has known for a few weeks that Villa were certain of a top-six finish.

Keeping key players fresh and injury-free has been at the forefront of his mind and would have played a part in last Sunday's selection when eight changes were made for their 1-0 loss at Millwall.

However, that defeat was Villa's ninth away reverse of the season – more than any of the other top-eight clubs – and might leave them short of confidence as they go into their biggest game of the campaign.

Pulis opted for a different approach in Boro's clash at Ipswich last Sunday, naming an unchanged team for the third successive match.

Boro drew 2-2, extending their unbeaten run to four games, and a satisfied Pulis has announced that he will go with the same starting side against Villa.

It might seem an unusual strategy to give the opposition manager such important information but it also shows confidence in the players and may give them a better chance of performing to their maximum.

Boro's playoff push was almost derailed by their failure to cope with the big games.

They posted just three wins from their first 18 matches against teams who finished in the top half.

But they solved the problem over the last three weeks, taking ten points from a possible 12 against top-half opposition.

Britt Assombalonga impressed during the run-in, scoring two goals in three games, and his return to prominence is a huge boost.

Adama Traore continues to impress on the flanks and Patrick Bamford is a useful substitute to have, having netted ten goals in his last 13 matches.

There are enough matchwinners in the Boro ranks and they are starting to showing the defensive nous of a typical Pulis side.

They were rock-solid when defeating Millwall 2-0 in their last home game, giving up just three shots on target, and their industrious three-man midfield of Mo Besic, Adam Clayton and Jonny Howson should ensure that Villa are given little time or space to play free-flowing football.

Villa relied on Albert Adomah earlier in the season but the pacy winger has gone off the boil and hasn't scored for more than two months.

On the plus side, Jack Grealish is playing close to his best and Jonathan Kodjia's recent return from injury has enhanced their attacking resources.

However, Villa's mixed finish to the season – four wins, two draws and four defeats from the last ten games – is a concern for a side who would want to be hitting top gear.

Boro look the more confident and settled and that may give them the edge.


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Match in Focus


Arsenal v Tottenham

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Key stats
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Expert verdict
Arsenal came from behind to get the better of rivals Tottenham in the Premier League earlier this month and should frank the form in their League Cup quarter-final clash. The Gunners’ 22-match unbeaten run finally came to an end at Southampton on Sunday, but the club has been rejuvenated by the arrival of Unai Emery. Spurs lacked the desire of their hosts in the recent 4-2 defeat at the Emirates.