Preview: Middlesbrough

A goalless first leg sets up a tense second where one moment of brilliance, or lapse in concentration, could send either Coventry City or Middlesbrough through to Wembley and 90 minutes away from a potential spot in the Premier League. With home advantage on Middlesbrough’s side, the Teessiders look to be favourites, but the Sky Blues have a strong reason to believe that they can still advance.

Neither team really gave anything away in the first leg, with the primary focus being on staying in the tie. Coventry City improved after a slow start, but were unable to find space in the final third against a Middlesbrough team that left players back to avoid being hit on the break. The longer this tie remains level, the more one of these teams is going to have to risk leaving themselves open in order to win it.

Expected Line-Up

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

The main concern about Coventry City’s performance in the first leg was how isolated Viktor Gyokeres was. The midfield was too far apart from the strikers, with Matt Godden too limited in his hold-up play to make up some of that ground. It is Godden’s spot in the team that looks to be the primary consideration for change, even if there is a concern that such a move – without an out-and-out striker available to replace him – may invite unwanted pressure on the Sky Blues’ backline.

It would be Jamie Allen who is likeliest to take Godden’s place in the side, however, Gustavo Hamer picking up a knock late on in the last game is a potential spanner in the works. Mark Robins, in typical fashion, has kept his cards close to his chest with regards to Hamer’s availability for this game, but his potential absence would almost certainly leave the manager without the ability to change shape to counter-act the issues with last Sunday’s performance.

Were Hamer to be out, it would make it especially valuable if Ben Sheaf was able to come into the starting line-up in order to make up some of the ball-playing and ball-winning qualities that the former can provide. In a world where everyone was fit, Sheaf taking Liam Kelly’s place as the defensive midfielder would be ideal in order to add some mobility and creativity to the centre of the pitch, however, this isn’t the world in which Coventry City live and Mark Robins may be left to hope that the hand he has to play is one that is effective on the night.

Last Time We Met

It was a game of few chances on Sunday as both teams seemed to pretty content with the goalless draw. It was Middlesbrough who had the better opportunities, with Chuba Akpom missing a glaring opportunity after being sent clean through on goal early in the first-half, but created relatively little overall. The frustration for Coventry City is that, after a timid start, they had some good spells in the game without ever looking like scoring. For the return leg, the Sky Blues will need to be more direct and decisive in their attacking play.

The Opposition

The Manager – Michael Carrick

Given Middlesbrough’s strong home form, Michael Carrick appears to be content to have kept this tie level heading into a second leg at the Riverside Stadium. However, a concern from a Boro perspective is that they have created relatively little against Coventry City over the past two games, with Sunday’s match-up seeing them sacrifice their usual flow and dominance in possession to keep the Sky Blues at bay.

Michael Carrick has been used to seeing his Middlesbrough side blow teams away at the Riverside with open, attacking free-flowing football. With a fervent home support behind them, that could be more than enough to win this tie, but the danger is that it allows Coventry City to play to their strengths and win it on the counter-attack. This game is going to be an interesting balancing act for Carrick between sticking with a Plan A that has worked so well during his short managerial career thus far and avoiding leaving his team open to the sucker punch.

Who To Look Out For?

Possible Line-Up (4-2-3-1): Steffen; Smith, Lenihan, McNair, Giles; Hackney, Mowatt; Jones, Akpom, McGree; Archer.

Over these past two games, these teams look to have developed a good feel for one another. The ability of Chuba Akpom, Riley McGree and Hayden Hackney to play quick, incisive passes in the final third is something Coventry City will have to keep a keen eye on, as well as the running of Cameron Archer and Isaiah Jones in behind, and Ryan Giles’ crossing from left-back.

A key source of encouragement for Middlesbrough in the first leg were the showings of defensive players, Alex Mowatt in midfield and Paddy McNair in central defence. For the former, Mowatt had struggled to convince as a replacement for the integral defensive midfielder, Jonny Howson, for much of his recent stint in the side, but he played a key role in killing off some dangerous Coventry City counter-attacks. For the latter, McNair went from looking a complete mismatch for Viktor Gyokeres to exploit to someone the Swede struggled to get past. If Middlesbrough are to up the ante in pushing forward in this game, it is vital that Mowatt and McNair maintain that same standard of defensive solidity.

The main curveball that Michael Carrick can play in this game would be if either or both of Jonny Howson and Aaron Ramsey were to be available for selection. In the case of Howson, Alex Mowatt’s showing on Sunday eases the pressure to rush him back as a key defensive midfield presence. Were Ramsey to be available, his ability to both link play in the final third and run in behind could add that extra dimension to Middlesbrough’s attacking play that Coventry city could struggle to deal with.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

It feels as if the onus is on Middlesbrough to break this tie’s deadlock by opening up in order to either win it for themselves or present the space for Coventry City to do so. Unless the Sky Blues fall behind in this tie, it is very unlikely that Mark Robins will do much to try and force the win, which is why Boro hold such a sway as to how this second leg will play out.

Middlesbrough will be hoping that once they move up through the gears in attack, in a manner they haven’t really looked to do over these past two games, it will overwhelm Coventry City’s defence and leave them with players in space in the penalty area to win the game. The concern for the Sky Blues is that their predilection for dropping into a back five out of possession, and for the midfield to sit deep too, will leave Boro with the time and space on the ball to pick the passes to leave the back-line stretched. While Coventry will look to press at times in this game, once the ball moves into their half, they tend to retreat, that is where organisation and concentration at the back will be tested to its extreme.

At the other end, the question is whether Viktor Gyokeres might have greater opportunities to run one-on-one against Middlesbrough’s back-line than he did in the first leg. Boro were smart at the CBS Arena in leaving both Alex Mowatt in midfield and Tommy Smith at right-back deep when they with the ball in order to provide Paddy McNair and Darragh Lenihan support to deal with Gyokeres when Coventry City managed to get on the counter-attack. Middlesbrough may need at least one of those players further forward to support their creative efforts for this game, which is where Gyokeres – as well as Gustavo Hamer, if fit, and probably Matt Godden and Jamie Allen as well – may get their chances to win it for the Sky Blues.

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