While most teams in the Championship are winding down after a 46-game slog, clubs like Aston Villa and Middlesbrough are gearing up for a final, herculean push. For them, the play-offs await. Every team in the final stage of the Championship will be two games, home and away, from a date with destiny at Wembley Stadium.
Post-season celebrations cannot begin. Not yet. There remains a few weeks of hard work and preparation to be completed. The days are all the same here. Training, tactical meetings, player-to-player talks, pressers.
With all the pressure of a final-game title fight, they play-offs are anyones to claim. Almost. With so much at stake, a place in the Premier League to claim, and the pressure rising, it’s time for the mind-games to begin. This only ends with a knockout, remember? Aston Villa and Middlesbrough have two matches left to search around for the strength needed to eliminate one another.
Middlesbrough didn’t waste time in staking their intentions to the ground. Manager, Tony Pulis, is very happy heading into the game with ‘weaker side’:
“We have got Villa, who most probably have the strongest squad in the Championship and it will be a real tough game. They will be big favourites, I’m sure.” - Pulis, speaking to the Hartlepool Mail
It’s definitely true that Villa can boast one of the stronger sides and squads in the Championship, but it’s not clear whether this will get to a big-game side like Aston Villa, who seem to turn up when the pressure is on.
What’s more, while Villa might hold the upper hand in depth, and be favourites - Boro can’t ignore the fact that they can run the flanks with Adama Traore, a huge travelling threat.
Pulis, very much heading into a knife-fight with a nuclear bomb in his pocket, holding his hands up to show his vulnerability, there.
Villa on the other hand have stepped off the gas. Colin Calderwood, standing in for Steve Bruce, declared that the Villa Park crowd will be vital to an aggregate win, but firstly, that the Villans need to ensure they brace for a tough away leg.
“It’ll be a tough game with a good atmosphere which really gets going when it needs to there. We need to make sure that comes second to what we create at Villa Park in the return leg. We’ll go there and try and get a lead.” - Calderwood speaking to AVFC
Happy to add a pH balance to Pulis’ claims, Calderwood offered a sobering view on the play-offs and Villa’s opposition. To him, it didn’t matter that Villa have held the upper hand over Middlesbrough over the past two league meetings. It’s the play-offs. It’s a cup tournament. It’s knockout football. What matters is the two games leading up to the final.
Both managers are being wary, but it seems that Middlesbrough’s man is very certain of his side’s position heading into the first-leg of the play-off semi-final. A nervy clash at the Riverside Stadium awaits next weekend.