After a gruelling 46 game season, Aston Villa finds themselves embroiled in a playoff scrap with fellow Premier League promotion hopefuls Middlesbrough. During the course of the season, the two clubs have met three times twice in the league and once in the cup. The playoff semi-final will be a decider of the better team with the previous three matches this season have resulted in one draw in the league, a Villa win in the league and a Middlesbrough win in the League Cup a week later.
After winning 10 of their first 23 games, Middlesbrough was sitting in 9th and to the surprise of some fans, manager Gary Monk was sacked after a 2-1 win away at Sheffield Wednesday. The Smoggies then turned to the safe and reliable hands of manager Tony Pulis who was recently sacked by Premier League strugglers West Brom.
This change of manager has worked out in favour of Middlesbrough as Pulis has turned the team around and has got them firing on all cylinders losing just 6 games in their final 23 games, winning 12. The North-East club has finished the season in fine form with four wins and one draw in their last six games in the league.
One player who Pulis has got the most out of that few managers have been able to so far and his career is former Aston Villa winger Adama Traore. When Villa signed Traore from Barcelona they thought they were signing one of the stars of the future. A player capped by Spain Under 21’s during a talent filled era in the Spanish youth system he had all the attributes to be a top-class player. However, this wasn’t the case and during his spell at Villa Park he was poor and was part of the side that got relegated from the Premier League with most fans happy to see him leave.
After joining up with Middlesbrough in the Premier League in 2016, his time wasn’t much better with many Boro fans noticing what most Villa fans had, all the physical attributes but the lack of an end product and was subsequently relegated again. This has changed under Pulis with the Spaniard registering five goals in 10 assists this season with only two assists before Pulis arrived.
Pulis has got Middlesbrough playing in a 4-3-3 formation and he has one of the most complete sides in the division. From their sturdy, dependable backline to there rugged workmanlike midfield all the way to there lethal frontline it is hard to find weaknesses.
Villa could welcome back Birkir Bjarnason who has missed the last couple of games with a back injury.
Neil Taylor (hamstring) and Axel Tuanzebe (ankle) will both miss out.
Middlesborough manager, Pulis has stated that they have no fresh injury problems.
THE BIG MATCH
Traore will certainly be the player to watch for Steve Bruce’s men. The ex-Villa winger has been one of the top performers in the Championship this season and has recently been linked with a £30m move to Chelsea in the summer.
So far this season Traore has completed the most dribbles per game with 7.1 which is more than double that of the next best players which are Birmingham’s Jermaine Boga and Bolton’s Sammy Ameobi with 3.4 each. To put that into perspective, Villas highest is Jack Grealish with 2.6.
As a result of his large amounts of dribbles, Adama is the 4the most fouled player in the league getting fouled 2.5 times per game just behind Grealish in 3rd who gets fouled 3 times a game.
However, as glamorous and impressive as these statistics sound, Adama is the fifth most disposed player in the league getting stripped of the ball 2.5 times per game. As well as this, Adama has the 9th most unsuccessful touches in the league with 3 of his touches going wayward per game.
As well as those stats highlighting the danger of Adama, Grealish is above him in each one which highlights the level in which Grealish is playing at. Another danger man for Villa will be Robert Snodgrass.
Villas tricky wide man Snodgrass has completed the 4th most crosses in the league with 1.9 crosses reaching their target per game, closely followed by former Villain, Stewart Downing who completes the 7th most crosses per game with 1.7. As impressive as Snoddy’s crossing is, he also sits in 4th for the most key passes per game with 2.3
Middlesbrough’s passing strong point lies in their midfield with Muhamed Besic completing 88% of his passes since joining on loan from Everton in January with Adam Clayton not far behind with 87.2%.
However, Villa’s strength in passing lies in there centre-back partnership with James Chester being Villa’s most accurate passer this season with an 87.2% pass accuracy, closely followed by Terry with 85%.
Villa may have little luck in the air with Middlesbrough’s regular defence of Ben Gibson, Daniel Ayala, George Friend and Ryan Shotton being ariely dominant. Out of the four, Ayala is top of the list winning 4.6 aerial duels per game with his centre-back partner the least completing 3.1 per game. To put this into perspective, the ever-present Chester is Villa’s most aerially dominant defender completing 3.1 aerial duels per game.
Villas attack may get some joy out of Ayala who commits an average of 1.3 fouls per game compared to Terry and Chester who commit just 0.5 and 0.6 fouls per game respectively.
The playoff final is often referred to as the £200 million match as that is the difference financially between winning and getting promoted to the Premier League of losing and staying in the championship.
To get there you have to win the semi-final and you could argue that the first leg is the most important as a good first leg can spur you on to win the second but a bad first leg and a loss could knock the wind out of your sails and a poor second leg. This game is hugely important as a big win for one side here could make the make a mountain to climb for the team that loses.
Aston Villa has sold their full allocation of 2,000 tickets for the long trip up to the Riverside.
Middlesbrough has sold 27,000 tickets (including Villa’s 2,000) but they have stated that they fully expect to sell out before the game tomorrow.
LIVE MATCH CHAT
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