Middlesbrough v Manchester United
Sunday March 19, 12:00
Live on Sky Sports
In the end, there was no wailing, and no gnashing of teeth. Aitor Karanka knew the end of the road had been reached, and took his dismissal with grace. The former Real Madrid defender had succeeded where many of his predecessors had failed, as he lifted Middlesbrough back into the top flight after a seven-year absence.
It would have been hard for Karanka to argue too strongly against the need for change. Boro had gone ten Premier League games without a win, picking up just four points and scoring just three goals in the process.
It's a run that has seen the club slip into the bottom three, and with the club three points from safety, chairman Steve Gibson decided it was time for change. Gibson thanked Karanka for the enormous impact he has had on the club, and unusually suggested that former Spain defender would be relieved to have a break.
Karanka's second-in-command Steve Agnew now has the role, and Gibson has suggested he will be considered for the position full-time should he succeed. Agnew says he is determined to make the most of the opportunity, and has the full support of the squad. Former England winger Stewart Downing has been brought back into the fold, after a fierce row with Karanka.
Agnew must find a way to beat Premier League defences. Boro have by far the worst attacking record in the division, with just 19 goals scored in 27 games. They haven't won a home game in the league since mid-December, and they have only won three Premier League home matches across the entire season.
While Aitor Karanka seems content to turn away from the angst of football management for a bit, his former coaching colleague Jose Mourinho is once again embracing the combative nature of the job. Mourinho was infuriated by Ander Herrera's second-off in Monday's FA Cup exit at Chelsea, and now he has hit out at the scheduling of this match. With his team having played 11 games in six weeks, Mourinho says that United playing at lunchtime after a Thursday night clash with Rostov in the Europa League simply isn't fair.
Mourinho says getting a point at Middlesbrough in these circumstances would be a great result, but this is a classic case of Mourinho playing to the gallery. He has one of the deepest squads in Europe, and his assertion that he considered playing a youth team before deciding it wasn't fair on Middlesbrough's relegation rivals is ludicrously dramatic.
United are through to the quarter-finals of the Europa League, where they will play Anderlecht, and I believe that winning that competition is their best route to Champions League qualification. Mourinho's men find themselves six points behind north-west rivals Liverpool in the race for fourth spot, although the Merseyside giants have played two games more.
Talismanic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic is still suspended, as is Herrera. Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial are still carrying injuries, but may feature. Paul Pogba is definitely out with a hamstring problem.
United are trading at [1.75] to win, and despite Mourinho's protestations to the contrary, that's about right. Even without Pogba and Ibrahimovic, United still have plenty of quality and speed in attack. Boro have lost at home to Chelsea, Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester City this season, and only scored one goal across those four games.
United are unbeaten in seven Premier League away games, and have won five times in that sequence. Of those five victories, four were by a margin of two goals or more. I'm happy to back United -1.0 on the Asian Handicap at [2.33], which means we win if they win by two goals or more, and a one-goal victory sees our stake returned.
Over/Under 2.5 Goals
Given Middlesbrough's goalscoring problems, unders is understandably the favourite here at [1.75]. Seven of their last eight Premier League games have featured fewer than three goals. You may also be tempted to back No in the Both Teams To Score market at [1.8].
With Zlatan out of the frame, Marcus Rashford may get a turn in the spotlight, and he is a wonderfully talented young forward. He is the favourite to score in 90 minutes at [2.34], while Henrikh Mkhitaryan is certainly worth a look at [2.7], as he has scored four goals in his last nine appearances.
2016-17 Kevin Hatchard English Football P/L
Points Staked: 41
Points Returned: 36.2
P/L: -4.8 points