We’ve finally made it. We’re here, at the end of the season. We’re unharmed and we are unscathed. While we didn’t quite meet the expectations of many, there’s still a chance for redemption in the eyes of some. Aston Villa are 180 minutes of football away from the play-off final at Wembley. Within touching distance of a spot in the Premier League.
Firstly, they’ll have to tackle 90 of that 180, minute by minute. How will those minutes unfold?
We have every right based on analysis to describe the coming minutes as agony. Nervous, tidy football. We have every right to expect a 0-0 in an away leg where you could look at a 1-0 loss as a ‘positive result’. Villa fans will be hoping to take a little bit more than that to the second-leg of the play-offs at Villa Park though.
The other side of that coin? There might be no expectation. You’ve seen Villa fall at this hurdle. You might not want to hang on to hope
Hope? Ah. Now you’re talking. Hope is what has us clutching to memories. Visions of a Robert Snodgrass late winner, or Villa attacking the box with gusto. An early Adama red card. It’s all happened in this fixture in the space of a single footballing season.
As the cliche goes, anything can happen now.
What is expected from Middlesbrough? A team that were written off from the moment Tony Pulis arrived as manager?
Well, they are certainly Villa’s black mirror in a sense. They’ve got the talent, like Villa. They’ve got the experience, like Villa. They might not have the form, nor the depth - but there are plenty of similarities on show.
More on Pulis. Middlesbrough haven’t deployed Pulis’ repulsive brand of football as of yet - and remain a patient team, with explosive talent on the wings. Of course, there’s also the threat of set-plays, with former Villan Stewart Downing able to equal Robert Snodgrass in terms of curling deliveries into the danger zone.
Of course, there is the threat of Adama Traore, a bulldozing winger who beams from A to B. Ignore the contextless stats - because when it comes to 90 minutes, he’ll be the man to watch.
As for Villa? There will be a full line-up to choose from with the team only missing Neil Taylor, Jed Steer and Axel Tuanzebe. Birkir Bjarnason may slot in alongside Mile Jedinak in the centre of the park - with Lewis Grabban leading the line. Experience is described as the edge for Aston Villa - but when you dive into a caustic hellmouth, it might be bravado and individual talent that saves the day.
Key clashes? John Terry and James Chester will have to hold their shieldwall steady amidst a set-piece barrage. Any slip of discipline will create an entry point for Boro’s roving attack. Up front, Lewis Grabban must combine well with Jack Grealish and Villa’s wingers to ensure Boro cannot find purchase at the back.
All signs point to a difficult game. You get the sense that Middlesbrough have nothing to lose. You get the sense that the pressure is on Aston Villa. However, when deployed into ecstatic cauldrons of support, it is more often than not that Aston Villa deliver when the spotlights are shining upon them.
Could that be an edge in this first leg? Well. Would you bet against us? As for a prediction? I’m not going to do the hard work for you.