CHAMPIONSHIP fan Matthew Kirby (@M_Kirby95) oversees Friday night's action as Middlesbrough meet Stoke at the Riverside.
Middlesbrough v Stoke | Friday 20th December 2019, 19:45 | Sky Sports
Want an excuse to finish wrapping those Christmas presents? Well, Sky Sports have given you the perfect one by showing a relegation battle in the Championship.
Jonathan Woodgate’s side sit three points clear of Stoke and the relegation zone, but the pressure is well and truly on with unrest coming from the terraces.
That mood won’t have been lifted following the 3-1 defeat at Swansea that saw Boro concede twice in three second-half minutes and finish the game with ten men. It means Marcus Browne and Paddy McNair are both suspended for this one.
Four points from two home games is a steady haul, but many Stoke fans will have been left disappointed by the lack of quality on show in their bore draw against Reading that saw no shots on target.
So, what do we expect on a Friday night by the Tees?
Lacking in entertainment
This game doesn’t look like one for the neutral. Look back to last season where one goal was scored across, while those two matches saw just eight shots target. Despite the lack of Tony Pulis prowling the touchline, neither manager will want to lose given both clubs’ tough Christmas fixtures.
Boro face trips to two sides in the top three, while Stoke have to host Sheffield Wednesday before going to Fulham – two other sides vying for promotion.
So with that in mind, it’s hard to see either manager wanting this game to be too open. Michael O’Neill has managed to get something out of the Stoke backline in their last two, although they were all over the shop in the defeat at Hull.
The Potters have managed to limit their opponents in recent games. Both Luton and Reading only managed to record 0.19 Expected Goals (xG), but Danny Batth’s block in the Luton will have helped to keep that tally low.
While Stoke have kept clean sheets recently, so have Boro. They’ve kept three in their last four home games, so there’s a strong case to make for defences being on top.
Width the key to Stoke
If it isn’t aimless long balls to Sam Vokes, it’ll be Stoke attacking down their left trying to get James McClean involved. The Irish international has been something of the go-to man. It was his assist that saw Vokes open the scoring against Hull, while he got a goal and an assist in the win over Luton.
That win over the Hatters saw him attempt 12 crosses and the draw versus Reading saw him make two from his seven attempts. It’s a clear tactic to the Potters game and they’ll hope to exploit space down the Boro right for him to thrive.
Despite that, there is usually very little coming from the left. Hide and seek champion Tom Ince has been ineffective. He’s been more willing to hamper the progress of Tom Edwards by taking his space and remaining static on the touchline.
If anything does go into the box from the right, it’s usually down to local lad Edwards trying to find Vokes or the runners.
The betting angles
There’s plenty of reason to be interested in backing a low goal count here in what I’m expecting to be a tight and tense tussle. Given last season’s meetings were both uninspiring affairs, and that nine of 11 Middlesbrough home games have already seen Under 2.5 Goals (39/50 Marathon), then it’s part of something to tempt me.
But to get more meat on the bones, I’m willing to put it in a bet builder with Boro or Draw Double Chance. The hosts have only lost one of their six at home, while Stoke have lost four of five away.
The Potters’ only recent away win came at basement dwellers Barnsley, so it’s been a struggle for the Potters on their travels, Plus, Boro are underperforming in the attacking third. They average 0.86 goals per game but have an Expected Goals mark of 1.3xG.
Britt Assombalonga returned to training the other day and could play a part for Boro. His return to fitness is a massive boost for them, and it was his goal that condemned Stoke to defeat at the Riverside at Easter. So, backing Under 3 Goals and Boro Double Chance comes out at a more attractive 11/8 shot.
I’ve mentioned above how Stoke like to play, so with their main threat coming down the left-wing, then it’s worth taking a look at Jonny Howson in the cards market.
Of late, Howson has dropped back into the backline and has featured at right-back and right wing-back. If Stoke can get McClean running at him, with Stephen Ward on the overlap, then he could be exposed.
He’s been cautioned three times this season and twice by referee Oliver Langford, who is in charge this evening. With him averaging around two tackles, then the 11/2 quote looks more than fair.
McClean is no shrinking violet, so could well react to one of Howson’s challenges or even comments. That could be a tasty match-up and one to look out for when the team sheets come out.
If they are facing off then it’s 25/1 that they are both carded in a bet builder. That’s a much better price than the 7/1 on offer with Coral. As ever, shop around for best prices on card markets.