MARK O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) previews the most lucrative match in football as Middlesbrough and Norwich face-off for a place in the Premier League.
Middlesbrough v Norwich City | Bank Holiday Monday 15.00 | Sky Sports 1
There’s so much at stake. There’s so much to win and so much to lose. There’s so much on the line. There’s £120m on offer to the winner with trips to Old Trafford and the Emirates to look forward. There’s naff all but tears and the very real prospect of Rotherham and Bolton again next season for the loser.
I remember struggling to sleep the night before last year’s Championship play-off final. I’d never seen QPR play at Wembley and we’d ambled through the campaign; I must have played Rob D’s ‘Clubbed to Death’ and a few Woodkid tracks relentlessly when eventually giving up on sleep at around 6am. The following 24 hours remain a bit of a blur…
I imagine Middlesbrough and Norwich fans will be feeling similar tension and anxiety. The Teesiders can taste the Premier League again after a six-year absence; the Canaries are looking to bounce straight back to the big time. Edginess over entertainment tends to be the order of the day in Championship play-off finals and it would be a big surprise if this fixture didn’t follow suit.
I feel like I owe Boro a begrudging apology. I’ve slagged them enough times with fairly banal reasoning and the way in which Aitor Karanka’s side swatted Brentford away in the semi-finals was classy, intelligent and impressive. And it’s worth pointing out what a fabulous job Karanka has done at the Riverside to turn the club around.
The Real Madrid legend inherited a side two points clear of the relegation zone and has moulded a hard-working, aggressive side with a sprinkling of match-winners across the park. There’s a real togetherness, most apparent in their defensive solidity; Boro average just 0.8 goals-per-game against under Karanka’s watch compared to 1.6 under predecessor Tony Mowbray.
Middlesbrough are patient and should enjoy the tight nature of Monday’s battle. It’s also worth noting they hammered Neil Adams' struggling side 4-0 at the Riverside, and more impressively beat Alex Neil's then high-flying Canaries 1-0 at Carrow Road in April. But I’m happy to put aside previous meetings, as this is a match like no other…
I’ve eulogised about Alex Neil a number of times since his introducing to English football. The young Scot is meticulous in his preparation and has even chosen to bring the Norwich squad down to Wembley for a midweek visit in order to get his players familiar with the change of working environment.
The 33-year-old has presided over a remarkable run of 16 wins from his 24 games in charge since moving down from Hamilton. That aforementioned Boro defeat hurts and still lingers with Neil – it’s been outlined as the reason why Norfolk’s finest failed to win automatic promotion – and you’d assume that’ll be used as another motivational factor for the Canaries boss.
Norwich are marginal favourites and I think that’s a fair assessment. Only one point separated the two sides in the final standings but Neil’s men boast the stronger squad and also boasted significantly better records when looking at average possession, shots-on-target and shots data than their north-east opponents across the campaign.
888 Sport have made Norwich 28/17 to clinch the win in 90 minutes and that’s where my allegiance will lie on Monday. As well as that outstanding win-rate under Neil, the Canaries held the best road record in the Championship and that included a fabulous W7-D2-L2 return away to top-half teams. Against the same sample, Middlesbrough W4-D3-L4 – add in results against teams in 15th and above and that record reads W4-D3-L7.
I shall also be having a stab at Betway’s even-money offer on Both Teams Not To Score. The BTTS bet rarely cops in Championship play-off finals – eight of the last 11 have seen the Both Teams To Score bet fail and six of the previous 10 have ended 1-0. Taking both teams’ away BTTS league records this season suggests there’s only a 45% chance of a repeat too, meaning we should be on the right track for a decent value selection.
And finally, a touch of in-play advice. Since the 1989/90 season, 19 of the 25 finals have seen the team who bag the first goal achieve promotion. So once that first goal goes in, you know what to do.
Middlesbrough v Norwich City – Norwich City to win (28/17 888 Sport)
Middlesbrough v Norwich City – Both Teams To Score ‘No’ (1/1 Betway)
Where’s your money going on Bank Holiday Monday? Are you backing Boro? Reckon Mark’s got it all wrong?
We’d love to hear your views so let us know in the comments box below.