Middlesbrough meet Aston Villa at the Riverside Stadium on Saturday evening for the first leg of their Championship play-off semi-final. Mark O'Haire previews the encounter...
"First legs of play-off semi-finals are notoriously cagey affairs with around two-thirds featuring fewer than three goals and an average goals per-game tally standing at just 2.10"
Middlesbrough v Aston Villa
Saturday 12th May, 17:15
Live on Sky Sports
Middlesbrough finishing with a flourish
Patrick Bamford's 97th-minute equaliser at Ipswich last Sunday secured Middlesbrough's fifth-place finish, setting up Saturday's first leg against Aston Villa. Although never publicly admitted as much in as many words, manager Tony Pulis will have been pleased to avoid favourites Fulham in the semi-finals.
The former West Brom boss has attempted to pile the pressure on the visitors by suggesting Villa "will be big favourites" but his own side started the season as the team to beat according to the bookmakers and concluded the campaign with a flourish, picking up 10 points from a possible 12.
Pulis may opt for experience in midfield here with Grant Leadbitter in contention to replace Jonny Howson in the centre of the park. Elsewhere, Bamford and Britt Assombalonga are vying for a starting berth in attack, while Rudy Gestede is the only absentee for the Teessiders.
Aston Villa set to recall the cavalry
Aston Villa rounded off their 2017/18 campaign with a 1-0 reverse at Millwall. Steve Bruce made a number of changes to his starting XI and the Villans lacked cohesion as they lost out in the capital to a goal from the penalty spot after Henri Lansbury was adjudged to have fouled Jed Wallace.
Reserve goalkeeper Mark Bunn denied the Lions a second from the spot late on after James Chester was penalised for handball. Not that the result nor performance mattered much with the Claret & Blue already assured of a fourth-placed finish in the Championship.
Key midfield trio Glenn Whelan, Jack Grealish and Robert Snodgrass are all expected to return to the team, as well as the likes of Lewis Grabban, John Terry and Ahmed Elmohamady after being given the weekend off against Millwall. However, Birkir Bjarnason and Neil Taylor are rated doubtful.
A stalemate the most likely scenario
Aston Villa have taken top honours in three of their past five trips to Teesside - including a 1-0 triumph in this season's December encounter - and Steve Bruce's side are rated [3.65] to take a first leg lead back to the Second City on Saturday evening. However, a sole success in five road trips is cause for concern.
Bruce has bagged four promotions to the Premier League in his career and the Villa boss is expected to focus his team on nullifying the threats posed from the hosts ahead of the return leg. Limiting Middlesbrough's counter-attack will be key for the guests who've performed more consistently at Villa Park.
Boro [2.40] have lost all five Riverside outings against top-six rivals this term, firing blanks on four occasions. And with home Championship sides having won just three of 14 play-off semi-final first legs since 2010/11, the trends certainly don't seem to favour the hosts.
However, Pulis has undoubtedly improved the Teessiders since his arrival. Under the Welshman's leadership, Boro have pocketed 12 victories from 22 - including seven from their last eight Riverside encounters - and more recently have suffered only two defeats in 14 (W8-D4-L2) fixtures.
A goalless first-half fancied
First legs of play-off semi-finals are notoriously cagey affairs with around two-thirds featuring fewer than three goals and an average goals per-game tally standing at just 2.10. What's more, seven of the most recent 14 Championship examples have produced no more than a solitary strike.
Middlesbrough have conceded less than 1.00 xG in 14 of their 22 tussles under Tony Pulis - highlighting their improving defensive structure - and so with two pragmatic managers overseeing a contest in which nerves are likely to limit the confidence of both sides, opposing goals looks the most obvious solution.
Backing Under 2.5 Goals is too short to consider at [1.52] but supporting Under 0.5 Goals in the first-half has plenty of appeal at [2.48]. The two regular season meetings featured only one goal, while the duo have provided profit from this market in 6/10 (60%) of their respective home/away games against top-six finishers.
Mark's 2017/18 Profit/Loss
Staked: 172.00 pts
Returned: 181.22 pts
P/L: +9.22 pts
Back Under 0.5 First-Half Goals @ [2.58] in Middlesbrough v Aston Villa