Middlesbrough must be realistic as Man City arrive with a purpose
Wednesday night's slim 1-0 victory over their doomed North East rivals Sunderland gave some sorely needed buoyancy to Steve Agnew's stuttering survival bid in the Middlesbrough hot seat. The lip service paid to the media and fans might speak of battling until relegation becomes a question of cold mathematics, but the situation remains bleak. What's more important is the impetus that can be gained from some hopefully heartening displays before the end of the season.
Boro's fixture list reads like a horror story for those still harbouring fugitive thoughts of beating the drop, with away trips to Stamford Bridge and Anfield left to negotiate after Pep Guardiola's Manchester City men board the coach back across the Pennines.
Realists among the Teesside faithful fully accept the severity of the scenario and many have turned thoughts to blooding players and building vital momentum in advance of a season in the second tier. Others will argue that the "strongest" XI should be deployed until relegation is confirmed -- an argument that clearly contains logic and merit -- but some believe there is more long-term gain to be garnered from selecting those who are likely to form the spine of the side next year.
January signings such as Patrick Bamford, recently conspicuous by his absence and limited to spots on the bench, and Rudy Gestede could be of greater benefit in four months' time if they are given the opportunity to build a partnership now, while still in the tougher climes of the Premier League.
Undoubtedly it could prove to be a baptism of fire for certain players as their remaining opponents are fighting for either the Premier League title or crucial Champions League spots. But there is something to be said for these players to test themselves against the very best. Should they come away unscathed with creditable displays, and perhaps even some goals to show for their efforts, they'll be well-placed to embark a promotion push on the Championship next term.
Regardless of those selected for action, the absolute minimum expectation from the crowd will be total application and commitment to the cause. Although the dearth of quality was uncomfortably evident on Wednesday evening on both sides, the battling spirit provides a crumb of comfort to 'Boro fans. Adam Clayton, who supplied a sublime lofted assist for Marten de Roon, was the first to acknowledge that a scrappy win slogged out in poor surroundings was the least that the fans deserve.
It remains abundantly clear, unfortunately, that if 'Boro turn out the same performance against Manchester City on Sunday afternoon, they'll be in real danger of being blown away long before the final whistle rings out. When the sides last met, in an FA Cup quarterfinal, an early David Silva strike took the wind out of Boro's sails before Sergio Aguero sealed the deal. With City desperate to capitalise on Liverpool's latest defeat and as they're no longer competing for anything else, 'Boro can fully expect to face the full might of Guardiola's charges.
Agnew faces a selection dilemma given the previous debate posed about the near- and long-term future of the club, and this will be no more evident than with the right-back position. Calum Chambers, recently returned from injury, offered an impressive showing this week and gives 'Boro good energy in getting forward. They always benefit from his intelligent decision-making. Unfortunately he is competing with Fabio, far and away the best signing in what was an utterly disastrous January transfer window, who has given every ounce of energy in the shirt so far.
Beyond that, much depends on the formation that Agnew picks. He has faced recent criticism for switching systems too eagerly, ironically the polar opposite of the ire that was fired at the departed Aitor Karanka. Agnew must quickly settle upon his best formation -- both for the benefit of this season and beyond, if he is to remain in charge.
Using some understood tactics that the team are at least comfortable with, if not the most adept at employing, give 'Boro the best chance of avoiding the type of hammerings delivered by Bournemouth that serve only to derail any confidence and rhythm picked up in the tough derby win this week.
Catherine Wilson ESPN FC's Middlesbrough blogger. You can follow her on Twitter: @Basslady