NEWLY-PROMOTED Preston take on highly-fancied Middlesbrough in an intriguing contest on Sunday. We asked Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) to find us an angle.
Preston v Middlesbrough | Sunday 12.00 | Sky Sports 5
I’ve been hot on Middlesbrough all summer but I have to admit, I’m starting to get a little twitchy. The Teesiders should compete for automatic promotion – finishing outside the top-two must be deemed a failure – but going into the new season they’ve yet to really address their requirement for goals.
The pursuit of Jordan Rhodes seems to have stalled, Patrick Bamford’s loan and 17 goals are gone and Cristhian Stuani, a player I’ve high hopes for, has only just gotten international clearance. Lee Tomlin’s departure is offset by the coup of getting homeboy Stewart Downing back in the ranks and perhaps I’m jumping the gun but there are a couple of warning signs.
Boss Aitor Karanka penned a new four-year deal with Boro this week to reaffirm his commitment and with an expectant crowd, the pressure is on to reach the Premier League. And I’m sure Karanka and co would have preferred a different test to start the 2015/16 campaign than a trip to League One play-off winners Preston.
Having missed out on their previous nine play-off attempts, North End emphatically saw off Swindon at Wembley to secure a place back in the second tier. Play-off final hat-trick hero Jermaine Beckford and Paul Gallagher signed permanently and the captures of Will Keane, Greg Cunningham, Jordan Pickford and Marnick Vermijl mean manager Simon Grayson has completed his priority shopping in time for the curtain-raiser.
PNE were solid rather than spectacular in League One and I’ve no doubts they can safely nestle themselves into mid-table. Paul Huntingdon and Tom Clarke marshal an organised defensive ship that kept 24 shutouts during their last campaign and with the energetic and feisty John Walsh sitting in front, there’s enough bite to believe they’ll be tough to breakdown.
And up top, Joe Garner is eager to silence the doubters in his return to the Championship. Despite scoring 51 goals across the past two campaigns, many believe the talented forward flopped at Watford and Nottingham Forest when playing at this level previously. In truth, Garner was asked to operate on the flanks too often to make a major impact and his central role should continue to see him flourish when spearheading North End’s attack.
Preston only failed to net in three fixtures last term and although Middlesbrough are missing Ben Gibson, Karanka’s troops were far and away the strongest defensive unit in the division. Stopper Dimitrios Konstantopoulos kept 20 clean sheets across the regular season and we should expect another solid base from Boro this time around.
I had a look at how losing play-off finalists fared on the first game of the new season and although their W3-D2-L0 return across the past five years looks strong on paper, Derby struggled to beat Rotherham at home this time last season whilst Watford were hardly inspiring when seeing off Birmingham the year previously. With Boro’s W10-D5-L8 road return from 2014/15, I’m uncomfortable taking the 2.31 (Favourit) on an away win.
PNE lost just once at Deepdale during their promotion campaign and I can see them frustrating Boro but I’m not quite as confident they’ll be good enough to take all three points. The hosts haven’t won a home opening day games since 2004/05 and playing the 3.15 (Favourit) draw makes more appeal than trying to side with either team.
Goal trends suggest we’ll be in for a tight encounter but prohibitive pricing makes an Unders angle uninteresting. So I’ll sit on the fence and cheer on the draw – it’s not often I do, but it kinda feels right here.
Preston v Middlesbrough – Draw (3.15 Favourit)
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