Only five points separate fifth and 10th place and it is all to play for going into the last two months of fixtures. Middlesbrough sit in sixth, and they face Nottingham Forest in what is looking more and more like a must-win fixture.
With games coming thick and fast between now and the end of the season, Middlesbrough’s next test is at home to Forest, before even tougher fixtures against Derby, Bristol City and Millwall in the coming weeks. Here are five things to expect when Middlesbrough take on Forest.
1. The return of Aitor Karanka
Aitor Karanka managed to end Boro’s seven-year stay in the Championship just two seasons ago, achieving promotion to the Premier League. However, he parted company with Middlesbrough after several below-par performances which led to their relegation.
It will be interesting to see what sort of reception he receives on Saturday afternoon, given his achievements with Middlesbrough. He wasn’t always a hit with some fans, due to his defensive playing style but the Spaniard should get a warm reception.
2. Boro to bounce back
Middlesbrough’s defeat against Wolves was a difficult one to take for Boro fans given the nature of the defeat. 2-0 down at half-time and the latter stages of the game saw the visitors down to nine men, but Middlesbrough could only manage to get one goal back before the final whistle.
An equally disappointing result earlier in the week saw Boro play out a 1-1 draw with strugglers Burton Albion.
Middlesbrough need to keep tabs on the top six and with it being in their hands, they can’t afford too many more slip ups between now and the end of the season. Forest aren’t in the best form, and this game has come at a good time for Middlesbrough, with tougher games on the horizon.
3. Jack Harrison to make an impact
Harrison was involved in the goal which levelled it up at the Pirelli Stadium earlier this week, and he is looking back to full fitness. Upon signing for Boro, Harrison hadn’t had a full pre-season, but is starting to play more of a part each week.
Boro lack natural width, with only Stewart Downing and Adama Traore the mainstays out wide. Harrison will provide good competition in wide areas and can offer something different, and he could feature this weekend.
4. A change of shape?
Middlesbrough went down to an early Burton goal in mid-week, and changed shape to a 4-4-2 in the first-half. The side from the North-East looked better in this shape against a resilient Burton team, and managed to get that all important equaliser.
Britt Assombalonga remains Middlesbrough’s top scorer this season, and with the form of Bamford this could be a duo that fires Boro up the table. The formation has been a success in this division for many years for several clubs, and it may be time for Pulis to re-try and re-think his tactics for Saturday.
5. Players with a point to prove?
A lot of Middlesbrough’s team was signed by Aitor Karanka, and the majority had a part to play in their promotion and ultimately their relegation from the Premier League.
The likes of Adama Traore and Patrick Bamford were arguably not given the time on the pitch they deserved under Karanka’s management, and with minutes and with patience their quality has shone through with Tony Pulis at the helm.
Traore and Bamford have been Middlesbrough’s best players in recent weeks and they will want to show Karanka just what he was missing out on when they face up on the weekend.