Match Preview: Middlesbrough v Leeds United - adverse weather; a pivotal clash
Friday, 2nd Mar 2018 14:36 by @LucasMonk_
Tonight, Leeds United travel to the Riverside Stadium to do battle with fellow play-off aspirants Middlesbrough (19:45 GMT) - after fears that the match could be postponed were dispelled earlier today.
Leeds United’s last outing was a momentous occasion for myriad reasons. An encounter with Brentford at Elland Road culminated in a narrow, but wholly merited, victory for Paul Heckingbottom’s team - their first under his tutelage. Meanwhile, the irrepressible Samuel Saiz started a match for the first time in over a month after starring in a midweek draw at Derby County having served his six-game ban.
Most crucially, United’s workmanlike defeat of the Bees - who had impressively vanquished Birmingham City by a 5-0 scoreline only days prior - narrowed the gap between themselves and the play-off positions to just six points. With 12 matches remaining and 36 precious points left to play for, Leeds’s play-off hopes do not appear as unrealistic as they did before Liam Cooper’s first goal of the season handed them a first victory since Boxing Day.
Henceforth, United embark upon an eminently difficult run until the season’s end. Notably, there are local derbies with Sheffield Wednesday and Barnsley at Elland Road to be contested. The rustic charm of a trip to Norwich City and the imposing grandeur of a visit to the prodigious Villa Park also remain to be savoured. But the crème de la crème of the team’s upcoming fixtures is unquestionably next Wednesday’s visit of the stellar, star-studded Wolverhampton Wanderers, who lead the division and appear destined for the abundant riches of the Premier League and its concomitant prestige.
Before Leeds tend to any of those challenges, though, they must first ensure that their outcomes will actually come to mean something at the end of the campaign. The first skirmish on the long march to victory comes tonight, at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium.
When the Whites last duelled with Boro in November, they emerged from a febrile clash as deserved victors. Each and every one of Leeds’s tireless, white-clad paladins ran themselves into the ground for the cause - and their application and endeavour gave rise to a memorable triumph, securing a hard-fought 2-1 win that foreshadowed the unfortunate dismissal of Garry Monk a month later.
Middlesbrough have since performed steadily under the guidance of the wily Tony Pulis, whose appointment on Boxing Day appeared rather jarring given the Welshman’s knack for achieving commendable results on small budgets and the club’s profligate spending in the previous transfer window. Since taking charge, Pulis, whose prudence ushered in a golden era at Stoke City between 2006 and 2013, has led Boro to five victories, two draws and five defeats.
Those results have taken Boro to within three points of the top six, and, with Leeds in 11th place and six points off the play-offs, tonight’s match is a crucial one. Due in no small part to the diligence of the staff at the Riverside Stadium, it will go ahead as planned - and the hosts have already been handed a boost prior to kick-off. Adama Traore, a dynamic, dexterous winger and a graduate of FC Barcelona’s esteemed La Masia academy, has been the fulcrum of recent victories over Reading and Hull, and he will be available for selection after having a red card issued to him at Sunderland rescinded.
Will the hosts supersede Sheffield United and enter the top six by avenging November’s defeat at Elland Road? Or will United claim a crucial victory to enhance their own prospects of securing a play-off berth?
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Tony Pulis will have Adama Traore available for selection after the red card shown to the fleet-footed winger during last weekend’s tempestuous local derby against Sunderland was rescinded.
But experienced midfielder Grant Leadbitter, who converted a penalty in that match, is a doubt with a hamstring injury.
Finally, Brazilian defender Fabio and imposing striker Rudy Gestede will be unavailable - both are sidelined with injury - with Pulis likely to retain his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation.
Paul Heckingbottom will once more have Adam Forshaw available for selection after the midfielder missed the recent 1-0 victory over Brentford owing to his wife’s being in labour.
Moreover, diminutive playmaker Pablo Hernandez (groin) and striker Kemar Roofe (knock) could be fit to return to the starting lineup.
Finally, Liam Cooper, who produced a stellar, match-winning display against Brentford, is expected to partner Sweden international Pontus Jansson in central defence once more, with Heckingbottom set to employ a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Both teams have seen their play-off aspirations dented by recent bouts of irregular form.
Kick-Off and Coverage
As ever, live match commentary on the part of BBC Radio Leeds will be available - their coverage commences at 18:00 (GMT).
Referee: Darren England (South Yorkshire), who has officiated 21 Championship fixtures this season, showing 79 yellow cards and one red.
Assistants: Neil Davies and Nick Hopton.
Fourth Official: David Webb.
Key Battle: Daniel Ayala v Pierre-Michel Lasogga
This televised encounter will see Daniel Ayala, a robust central defender who has played for Middlesbrough since October 2013, pitted against Pierre-Michel Lasogga, a clinical forward who is presently on loan to Leeds from Bundesliga strugglers Hamburger SV.
Ayala has made 26 appearances for Middlesbrough in all competitions this season, scoring three goals and maintaining a WhoScored statistical rating of 7.01 - making the Spaniard one of the most proficient performers at the Riverside Stadium.
Lasogga, meanwhile, has scored 10 goals in 17 starts for Leeds thus far this season - with three of those strikers arising in his last four matches. The German has also maintained a WhoScored statistical rating of 7.03, in addition to being crowned man-of-the-match on four occasions.
The outcome of this discrete duel will likely determine the outcome of the match; Lasogga is without question one of United’s most potent attacking threats and Ayala would do his team’s prospects of victory no harm by marking the German into innocuous silence.
After that impressive triumph at Elland Road over a respectable Brentford team last week - the first victory of the Paul Heckingbottom era - Leeds United face a stern challenge away to Tony Pulis’s Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium tonight.
Prior to last Saturday’s match, I was at pains to make plain my view that, after spending several weeks disgracing the shirt by being bumbling incompetents, the Leeds United players needed to stand up and be counted. They did just that, as an industrious performance, one that saw every United player carry out his duties with admirable hard work, negated an unusually impotent Brentford, who had rattled five goals past Birmingham City only days earlier.
I deem it acceptable to repeat those sentiments today, given that passion, fight, conviction and hard work are all qualities that Paul Heckingbottom expects his charges to exhibit. The former Barnsley head coach achieved a great deal on a modest budget in two years at Oakwell, lifting the Football League Trophy and guiding his hometown club to promotion by defeating Walsall and Millwall in the League One play-offs in 2015-16. It is my fervent belief that further accolades could await him as head coach of United.
We have seen a clear improvement in the team’s performances, particularly in that last match at home to Brentford; Leeds appear hungrier, more desirous of success, with diligence off the ball a particular focus of Heckingbottom’s. I surmise that the message to the players ahead of this game should be one that demands more of the same, because passion, fight, conviction and hard work will all be required to worst Middlesbrough. Tony Pulis’s overtly defensive and direct style of play may serve to infuriate many observers, but there is a reason for which he attracts the utmost respect from many of his managerial peers: he is vastly experienced, adept at instilling discipline and eliciting the very best performances from the players at his disposal.
Leeds need to produce another sturdy showing tonight if they are to obtain any points from this gelid trip to gritty, smoggy Middlesbrough - and I think they will, but I have misgivings as to whether that will be enough to secure victory.
The reverse fixture in November was highly competitive and, in the end, an Ezgjan Alioski goal in the second half proved decisive in a narrow United win. I expect this match to be just as closely fought.
Prediction: Middlesbrough 1-1 Leeds United
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