Preview: Middlesbrough

A win over Birmingham City last weekend and results elsewhere mean that Coventry City will be guaranteed a play-off spot if they avoid defeat on the final day, at Middlesbrough, and may even be able to afford losing if other results go their way. That final scenario has to be avoided at all costs, it really would be foolish to get into this position and then hope to rely on other teams to sort the Sky Blues out. It is in Coventry’s hands, it is on them to make sure it doesn’t slip away.

Final day nerves can cause strange things to happen, and it’s Coventry City’s job to avoid that in this game. It would have been nice if this most important game of the campaign wasn’t also among the toughest the Sky Blues will face, but the nature of a league season is that every team plays every other team twice. While Middlesbrough come into this game off the back of two defeats, they have been excellent at home this season and may be keen to both get back into form ahead of the play-offs and potentially land a psychological blow against a team they may be set to play twice again over the next week.

Expected Line-Up

Possible Line-Up (3-4-1-1): Wilson; McNally, McFadzean, Doyle; Norton-Cuffy, Eccles, Kelly, Hamer, Bidwell; Allen; Gyokeres.

The big decision for Mark Robins heading into this game is whether to stick with the team that got the job done against Birmingham City or to change things up to try and keep things tight in a game where a draw will do. While setting up for a draw can be a risk in and of itself, there is a strong argument that what worked at home against a poor team last Saturday may not be applicable away to one of the division’s best teams.

The concern with sticking with the formula that saw off Birmingham City was just how much time and space Coventry City allowed their opponents on the ball as they waited for chances to spring Viktor Gyokeres on the counter-attack. There were long periods of the game where there was almost no midfield as the team divided itself into defenders and strikers, against a team with much higher quality midfield players, that approach could see the Sky Blues picked apart before Gyokeres gets the chance to run at the opposition.

The most obvious change Mark Robins can make is replacing Matt Godden in the team with Jamie Allen to add an extra man into the midfield. That is probably what he will do, but another idea may be to replace Liam Kelly with Allen to give the team more mobility in the centre of the pitch so that they are better able to get across and close down Middlesbrough on the ball, with the added benefit of having another player up top to threaten on the break.

Other than that, it’s hard seeing any rhyme or reason to make further changes. Usually, the wing-backs have been an area of flux, but it feels like Mark Robins may have settled on Jake Bidwell and Brooke Norton-Cuffy as his preferred duo.

Last Time We Met

Back in October, both of these teams were in the relegation zone and desperate for a win to give their season lift-off after terrible starts. It was Coventry City who were greatest, having failed to win across their first seven league games, and that desperation showed in a determined, gutsy performance against a Middlesbrough side that still had aspirations of things clicking into place ahead of an expected promotion surge.

After Kasey Palmer missed a golden early opportunity, it was a classic Viktor Gyokeres goal that got the job done for Coventry City. A long ball up the pitch sent the striker one-on-one against Middlesbrough’s Anfernee Dijksteel, who was breezed past to set up a simple finish past Zack Steffen in the Boro goal. With the away team unable to threaten at the other end, the single goal was enough to set the Sky Blues on the way to a crucial win at the CBS Arena.

The Opposition

The Manager – Michael Carrick

Someone who, even in their early playing days, always looked like they would make a good manager, Michael Carrick has swiftly proved that in his first assignment at Middlesbrough, lifting Boro from relegation danger and nearly towards automatic promotion before having to settle for the play-offs. Carrick may have inherited a squad that was very likely to finish at the upper end of the table, but he has got Middlesbrough playing some eye-catching fast-paced, passing football in pretty impressive fashion.

Michael Carrick has turned players such as Chuba Akpom and Marcus Forss, who weren’t being given a chance under his predecessor, Chris Wilder, into some of the most dangerous attacking players in the Championship, underlining just how swiftly he has lifted the mood at the club. Recent back-to-back defeats have dulled the sense of momentum behind Boro, but each of those came on the road, with Middlesbrough a much more dangerous prospect at the Riverside Stadium

Who To Look Out For?

Possible Line-Up (4-2-3-1): Steffen; Smith, Lenihan, McNair, Bola; Barlaser, Mowatt; Jones, Akpom, Forss; Muniz.

The aforementioned Chuba Akpom is the undoubted star of this Middlesbrough side under Michael Carrick. It is fair to say that Akpom is a better player than the teenager he was when being asked to replace Leon Clarke at Coventry City, although he owes a lot of his success this season to Michael Carrick, who converted him into a withdrawn forward role, which has seen him go from someone the club were desperate to offload to the key cog in a surge up the table.

Akpom dropping just off the centre-forward position to act as a pivot point in attacking moves before surging late into the penalty area to finish has been the key feature of Middlesbrough’s form since the middle of October. Akpom is supported in his efforts by three other attacking players, with the impressive Aston Villa loan pair of Cameron Archer and Aaron Ramsey providing excellent pace and creativity to allow Boro to play so quickly and dangerously. The physical presence of Marcus Forss from a wide position has tended to make up that three, but injuries and rotation have seen the raw pace of Isaiah Jones and the box-to-box darting of Riley McGree come into the mix.

Supporting the team’s attacking efforts has often been Hayden Hackney in central midfield, who has been another Michael Carrick revelation after being brought into the starting line-up out of the academy this season despite a pretty underwhelming spell on loan in League Two with relegated Scunthorpe United the year before. Hackney’s industriousness and eye for a pass have knitted things together nicely for Boro in the centre of the park, supported by the experience of Jonny Howson alongside him. However, Daniel Barlaser – who picked the Sky Blues apart for Rotherham United earlier in the season – may get the start here as Middlesbrough rotate ahead of the play-offs.

In defence, Darragh Lenihan has been the commanding, steady presence for Middlesbrough that he’d always been for Blackburn Rovers at this level after arriving in the summer. He has been paired with the more dynamic Paddy McNair, who has often played as a box-to-box midfielder in his career, with Marc Bola and Tommy Smith from full-back also capable of supporting attacks. In goal, Manchester City loanee, Zach Steffen, has grown into a commanding, shot-stopping presence after a shaky start to the campaign.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

One of the key factors heading into this game is just how intensely Middlesbrough approach this, with their prospective starting line-up a key area of focus. While Michael Carrick will not want to lose another game heading into a play-off campaign that his team will probably start as favourites in, picking up injuries or suspensions needlessly in this game would be a bigger risk. Nonetheless, Coventry City can’t go into this game expecting any favours and Middlesbrough are a team that could easily enter into a groove if they score early and find some momentum in their final home league game of the season.

As mentioned earlier in this preview, Coventry City can ill-afford to be as passive in midfield as they were against Birmingham City last week. While it may have been a deliberate plan to utilise Viktor Gyokeres’ pace and strength on the counter, it may also have been the result of Liam Kelly being unable to cover as much ground as the team’s other, more dynamic midfield players. If Kelly does start, as seems likely, the concern is that he either forces the team towards their own goal or will be bypassed by Middlesbrough’s quick midfield play.

With Middlesbrough likely to look to dominate possession and get players forward, the opportunity in this game for Coventry City will clearly be to hit them on the break in the team’s preferred fashion. With Viktor Gyokeres consistently having had field days against Boro’s back-line over the past couple of seasons, he will be the Sky Blues’ key player here, while Gustavo Hamer’s passing and running from midfield in support will help make Gyokeres that bit more dangerous.

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