Take on Wear-sliders
While Sunderland were slouching to yet another draw on Saturday with all the vim and vigour of a retired Blue Peter pet, Middlesbrough were busy demonstrating why they’ve strong-armed their way into the upper reaches of the Championship. Boro battled back from a goal down against Bolton to take the game 2-1, securing their position in third and registering a fourth successive win to boot.
And when the north-east rivals meet at the Stadium of Light in the fourth round of the Capital One Cup on Tuesday night, we reckon the visitors can build on that encouraging recent run.
Tony Mowbray knows how to lead a side to success in the Championship, having guided West Brom to promotion in 2008 and he’s been drawing on that experience at the Riverside, as well as learning from the mistakes which saw the Baggies return to the second tier after a single season in the top flight.
In part down to the players at his disposal, Mowbray is not employing the free-flowing style which had Albion winning admirers but not matches. Instead he has plumped for a more pragmatic approach, based around a sturdy back line and Grant Leadbitter in the heart of midfield.
But the inspiration in attack is there and it is reliable. The likes of Scott McDonald, Marvin Emnes, Ishmael Miller have been around long enough to know how to unlock Championship defences, as McDonald proved with his match-winning double on Saturday.
A more settled group than during last season has prompted greater consistency and Mowbray’s men ought to relish the short trip to Wearside. The brief upturn which followed Martin O’Neill’s arrival during 2011/12 is a distant memory; the Black Cats have settled into a peculiar stagnation.
Predictable and stale, they have drawn six of their eight league outings this term and a clash with Boro should present a far sterner challenge than Morecambe and MK Dons in the previous rounds. Steven Fletcher has been the sole provider for O’Neill’s men, with risk-takers – or at least, risk-taking tactics – in short supply.
If the Northern Irishman is building a platform for progress, he’ll have to start proving it before falling into the same rut as his predecessor Steve Bruce. Indeed, this clash may provide some sort of indication of how far the clubs have come in recent months. They met in an FA Cup fourth round tie in January (and February), with Boro earning a draw on home turf, eventually going down 2-1 after extra time in the replay.
We don’t imagine there will be much in this one, either, but if the hosts remain in their shells as they have done in Premier League action, they are liable to be punished. Mowbray shuffled his pack for the victory at Preston in round three but as a north-east native, it’s difficult to imagine him chopping and changing to a significant extent on Tuesday night.
His charges have already come through three away ties in this competition, seeing off Bury, Gillingham and North End on the road while they have also tasted success at Brighton and Watford of late. With confidence on their side, take a chance on Middlesbrough claiming the bragging rights and a place in the hat.
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