Middlesbrough haven't tasted defeat since September 12, and Jack Critchley believes that they can pick up a point against a rapidly improving Norwich...
"Middlesbrough haven't had the easiest set of fixtures, having already played four of the top five, and they've managed to avoid defeat in three of those encounters"
Teessiders and Canaries to share the spoils
Although not every Middlesbrough fan was feeling enthusiastic about the prospect of a full season under veteran boss Neil Warnock, the majority of supporters have been pleasantly surprised by the start that the Teessiders have made to the 2020-21 campaign. The 71-year old has galvanised an unbalanced squad, and they head into this weekend's encounter on a 10-match unbeaten run. They haven't had the easiest set of fixtures, having already played four of the top five, and they've managed to avoid defeat in three of those encounters. Boro's penchant for a draw leaves them on the edge of the play-offs, however, they have become incredibly tough to beat, and Norwich will have their work cut out on Saturday afternoon.
It's over four years since the hosts last managed to assemble an 11-game unbeaten sequence, and having prevented high-flying duo Reading and Bournemouth from leaving with maximum points, they'll be feeling confident ahead of this weekend's clash with the Canaries.
There is plenty of positivity around the Riverside Stadium, and fans will have been pleased to hear that the much-improved Anfernee Dijksteel has signed a new contract this week. With the arrival of the injury-prone, but undoubtedly talented Duncan Watmore on a short-term deal, they should have just about enough strength-in-depth to cope with the hectic schedule over the coming weeks.
Warnock has his side extremely well-organised, and they have given away the fewest chances in the Championship this season. Although the arrival of tenacious midfielder Sam Morsy appeared to be a masterstroke, Boro still managed to keep back-to-back clean sheets in the Egyptian's absence recently. The former Wigan man is reportedly fit enough to return for this weekend's fixture. Morsy's presence has also helped to bring out the best in fellow midfielder George Saville, who already has two goals and two assists to his name. Paddy McNair, who has played three times for Northern Ireland in the last seven days, may need extra time to recover and may miss out here.
The hosts have kept four consecutive clean sheets, and having opened the scoring three times at home this season, they are yet to be pegged back by the opposition.
Norwich made a slow start to the campaign, yet Daniel Farke's men have started to find their feet, and they arrive here on a seven-match unbeaten streak. Although they have plenty to offer going forward, the East Anglian side have struggled to keep the opposition off the score-sheet on their travels. Huddersfield are the only side who have failed to notch when hosting the Canaries so far this season.
Emi Buendia has been responsible for the majority of Norwich's attacking output this campaign, and he has created more chances than any other player in the second tier. The Argentine has typically sprung into action during the final ten minutes of games, and with the visitors having netted seven of their 13 goals after the 76th minute, Boro must ensure that they don't let their concentration levels drop during the closing stages.
Farke's men are incredibly good at maintain leads, and having got their noses in front on seven occasions this campaign, they've been pegged back just once so far.
This is an interesting tactical battle between two managers with vastly different approaches. However, neither side is likely to give much away, and the points could be shared in the north east on Saturday afternoon. The draw is available at 3.39/4 on the Exchange, and that looks to be the best option here.
Stoke to edge past unpredictable Huddersfield
Stoke have proved a little inconsistent so far this season, yet Michael O'Neill's side can usually be relied upon in the Potteries. They've dispatched of Rotherham and Brentford here, and their only defeat came against an in-form Bristol City. The Potters find themselves just outside of the play-off spots, and their sizeable squad should prove to be hugely beneficial as the season progresses.
Their 3-0 demolition of high-flying Reading prior to the International Break was hugely impressive and they appear to have finally struck the right balance. O'Neill hasn't always appeared to know his best XI, and the constant chopping and changing has proved problematic in the past. Their hugely underwhelming 2-0 defeat to Swansea was the product of some unnecessary tinkering from the former Northern Ireland boss, although he will surely have learnt his lesson from that disappointing evening at the Liberty Stadium.
The form of Tyrese Campbell has proved to be a major contributing factor to their recent form, and the talented 20-year old was recently voted PFA Fans' Player of the Month. His quick-thinking and electric pace continue to cause problems for the opposition, and he is likely to give Richard Stearman the runaround once again this weekend. Steven Fletcher has looked sharp, and he will be hoping to add to his four goals on Saturday afternoon. The Staffordshire outfit appear to have finally found the right combination at the back with Harry Souttar slotting in alongside the experienced Danny Batth.
Only two sides (Middlesbrough and Swansea) have given away fewer opportunities on their own patch this year, and having only lost four home games since his arrival twelve months ago, O'Neill will be hoping that his team don't take their foot off the gas in this encounter.
Huddersfield are much-improved under Carlos Corberan, although they remain wildly unpredictable. Some fans have suggested that the club don't have the personnel to fully implement the Spaniard's preferred style of progressive football, however, they've undoubtedly enjoyed some glimpses of quality over the last couple of months.
The Terriers are dangerous opposition, and have won two of their last three away games. However, they've lost three of their last five Championship matches, and still look vulnerable when they have a lead to protect. A lack of firepower remains a concern, although they have found the net in each of their last nine matches. They've only scored more than a single goal in two of their eleven games so far, and despite creating some decent opportunities, they haven't always been able to finish sides off.
Although the West Yorkshire side are a little erratic, this could prove to be an incredibly tough afternoon for the visitors. Stoke aren't giving much away at home, and they will also offer plenty going forward. The hosts can be backed at 2.0621/20 on the Exchange, and they should be able to continue their good run of form in Staffordshire.
Pulis' Owls to leave Deepdale with at least a point
Despite plenty of pre-match optimism, Preston were beaten 2-1 at Rotherham a fortnight ago, and went into the International Break having lost three of their last four Championship matches. It's hard to know what to make of the Lilywhites this season, although the arrival of the energetic Emil Riis Jakobsen has given them some much-needed pace through the middle.
PNE are yet to pick up a point on their own patch, and Alex Neil has become visibly frustrated at his side's lack of cutting edge at Deepdale. They've also notched just a single goal at this ground so far, and they'll be keen to avoid making it six defeats on the spin here. A disappointing home xG of 1.1 has seen them struggle to create clear-cut opportunities in Lancashire and they won't fancy their chances of breaking down a stubborn Sheffield Wednesday outfit this weekend.
They were outshot 19-11 by a defensively-minded Birmingham outfit during their last outing here, and managed just six efforts from inside the box. Despite this, the form of the aforementioned Riis, Alan Browne and the powerful Jayden Stockley should offer fans some optimism going into the contest. Daniel Johnson makes his return from international duty, with the Jamaican midfielder having scored a superb strike for his country during a recent friendly. Neil confirmed that the 28-year old will be fit enough to feature here.
Sheffield Wednesday sacked Garry Monk and replaced him with Tony Pulis last week. The Owls have won just one of their last six matches, although they've kept back-to-back clean sheets coming into this tie. The former Stoke and West Brom boss is renowned for making his teams tough to break down, and although they tend to take a fairly direct approach, it often results in an upturn in form. The South Yorkshire side have shown plenty of defensive resolve in recent weeks, so the incoming gaffer won't have make too many tweaks at the back.
Pulis lost his opening game at Middlesbrough by a single goal, although he recorded three wins in his subsequent four outings. Although he wasn't popular at the Riverside Stadium, he averaged 1.64 points per game during his spell in Teesside.
The visitors had shown some signs of life during Monk's final couple of games in charge, and they should be able to take something back across the Pennines. Sheffield Wednesday are 5/4 Draw No Bet on the Sportsbook, and with Preston struggling on home soil, it looks like the perfect opportunity for them to put some much-needed points on the board.
You can follow Jack Critchley on Twitter @jcritch7