CHAMPIONSHIP specialist Ross Casey (@RossCasey24) shares his verdict from Saturday evening's first leg play-off between Middlesbrough and Aston Villa.
Middlesbrough v Aston Villa | Saturday 12th May 2018, 17:30 | Sky Sports
This Championship play-off is a meeting of two of the biggest spending sides in the Championship, meaning that one will suffer next season financially and miss out on the incredible £200 million on offer for promotion.
Middlesbrough were bullish at the start of the season, with chairman Steve Gibson being stated as saying “We will smash the league next year. We want to go back up as champions.”
Whilst that didn't quite come to fruition, they did secure a fifth placed finish after a change of manager to Tony Pulis. Myself and plenty others assumed that this would bring a more pragmatic approach to Middlesbrough's play, but if anything – it has made them more of an attacking threat.
Middlesbrough have scored 38 goals in their last 24 matches – netting in each of their last 14 which is where 27 of those 38 goals have arrived. So they are in a very different place to when Tony Pulis took over – against Villa at home no less – and arrive into the play-offs with decent form and plenty of confidence, losing just twice in their final 14 Championship fixtures.
Their final game ended in a disappointing 2-2 draw, but they can even take the positives of battling back from 2-1 down to avoid defeat in the last minute there too.
Villa have been in the top six for a long, long time this season and will have been preparing for these play-off fixtures for a fair few months!
After spending big last summer on proven Championship quality, they were much more frugal this time around, instead focusing on signing experienced pros like Glenn Whelan and John Terry. Those wise heads could prove key in these big fixtures this week.
Getting the away fixture out the way with the tie still intact will be the focus for Steve Bruce in my opinion. The Villains have struggled on the road all season long, and are winless in four of their last five arriving into this one at The Riverside.
The betting angle
For me, I see Aston Villa being the pragmatic ones here, sitting quite deep and inviting Middlesbrough on and in effect taking away the real danger of Adama Traore who needs plenty of space in front of him to cause damage. The proof of this tactic working against Boro is when they failed to peg back a Wolves side down to nine men who just sat in and forced Boro to resort to crosses and long shots.
With Aston Villa looking to come away with damaged limitation here, and Middlesbrough only conceding more than one goal once in their last 15 home matches, I like odds of Boro to net first.
Especially as they have netted 18 in their last eight home games and Villa have failed to score in three of their last five away from Villa Park. Tony Pulis knows Villa are a far better proposition at home and I think he can try and put a few past them here and will send his side out to put the tie to bed.
Middlesbrough v Aston Villa – Middlesbrough to score first (19/20 Ladbrokes)