Preston v Middlesbrough
Sunday 9 August, 12:00
Live on Sky Sports 5
North End earned their place back in the Championship by ending one of the Football League biggest jinxes as they won the League One final at Wembley after missing out in each of their nine previous attempts to win promotion via the end-of-season play-offs. But much of the euphoria has been replaced by concern among their supporters at the lack of transfer activity over the summer.
Jermaine Beckford and Paul Gallagher, who were on-loan last season, have signed permanent deals and another striker Will Keane has joined on loan from Manchester United but their squad currently looks a bit short of both quality and quantity for the rigours of the second tier to me and Simon Grayson has a big job on his hands.
Joe Garner has scored 51 goals over the last two seasons but he hasn't cut the mustard in his previous spells at this level so it will be interesting to see how he fares this time around. They also lost first-choice left-back Scott Laird to Scunthorpe after he inexplicably rejected a new contract to drop down a division and I think it's hard to see too many sides who will finish below them - 5.39/2in the Relegation market looks generous to me.
Losing the play-off final to Norwich last May was clearly a huge blow to The Teesiders but many good judges, including our very own @mikkymo73 in his Championship ante-post preview, think it may have been just a hiccup on the path back to the Premier League.
The market agrees and Boro are currently 6.411/2 favourites in the market to lift the title come May. The most eye-catching summer signing of the entire division was obviously the return of Stewart Downing to his boyhood club for a cool £5 million from West Ham. Given he was in the top 10 for assists last season in the top division, we should expect him to go a long way to alleviating Boro's Achilles heel last season - they scored fewer than anybody else in the top eight.
Patrick Bamford has departed - stepping up into the Premier League with Crystal Palace - but the arrival of exciting Uruguayan international striker Christian Stuani should compensate for that. Karanka's men had the best defensive record comfortably last year, though, so he'll be hoping for more of the same at that end of the pitch.
Losing Lee Tomlin, who scored 11 goals from midfield last season, to Bournemouth is a blow but it's very possible that by the time the transfer window closes at the end of the month, Blackburn striker Jordan Rhodes, with his hugely impressive strike rate in this league, may have also moved to the Riverside.
Recent statistics seems to support those who think Boro will do very well this season: prior to Bournemouth's slightly surprising title triumph last season, the three previous Championship title winners had lost in the play-offs 12 months earlier. If they are as well-equipped for a strong season as we think then Karanka's men should be well capable of starting with a win here, against North End, who we have noted don't seem to have strengthened enough over the summer for a side which only came up via the play-offs.
The Teesiders' were effective away from home last season, soaking up early onslaughts from a number of sides before using their quality going forwards as the game progressed and 2.447/5 is a nice, juicy price for them to do just that at Deepdale so I'm very happy to climb aboard the Boro bandwagon on this first weekend of the campaign.
Over/Under 2.5 goals
Under 2.5 goals is priced no better than 1.728/11 which is not surprising given Boro's defensive record last season and you would expect them to be as miserly again this time around, bearing in mind who Karanka worked under at Madrid - Jose Mourinho.
And while I certainly wouldn't put anyone off taking the 6.05/1 about draw/Boro in the halftime/fulltime market, on this occasion I'm happy to put all my eggs in one basket and just rely on them to pick up the three points regardless of margin and end the first weekend of the season on a high punting-wise.
Back Middlesbrough to win at 2.466/4 *best bet