HALF TIME: Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa
And that’s that for the second half. Villa have the advantage thanks to Jedinak’s header; they’d be in total control had Randolph not made that wonder save from Snodgrass. Boro need something in the second half, or they’ll have a hell of a task turning this round at Villa Park.
45 min +1: Friend is booked for an out-of-control run and leap into Jedinak. That seemed a bit of an unnecessary and pointless challenge.
45 min: Traore dribbles in from the left and looks for the top-right corner of the Villa net. Not quite.
44 min: And then Snodgrass drops a shoulder to cut in from the right, curling towards the top left. It’s a wonderful shot, but Randolph stretches out and fingertips it onto the left-hand post. The ball rebounds away to safety. What a shot … and an even better save! Happy birthday to the Boro keeper, then, 31 years old today.
43 min: Hourihane tries to release Adomah down the left. Ayala should tidy up, but he hesitates after intercepting and that allows Adomah to pick the ball up and consider a shot. He doesn’t have a go, but Villa stay on the attack, pressing Boro back.
41 min: Traore sees a shot from distance deflected out for a corner. Ayala flashes a header on target from the set piece, but Johnstone gathers. Good luck predicting who’ll score next, because both teams are doing their damndest.
39 min: Grealish embarks on another Gazza-style run, this time down the middle of the park from the halfway line. It’s a gravity-defying dribble, as he rides a couple of barges, and it showcases plenty of ball-glued-to-toe skill … but the minute he enters the area, he’s blocked by Ayala before he can get a shot away. What a stunning run, though.
37 min: A cross curled into the Villa box from the left by Friend. Assombalonga stoops at the near post and tries to guide a header into the bottom left, but Johnstone drops to smother. Assombalonga has had three decent chances in the last six minutes. He should have done better with all of them.
36 min: Besic tees up Adam Clayton, 25 yards out. The ball sails off into the blood-red sky.
35 min: The first slight lull of the match. It’s been otherwise thoroughly entertaining, despite the high stakes, so let’s give the lads a break, they deserve it.
33 min: These teams are beginning to give up chances now. Howson dances through the middle of the park before sliding another fine pass down the inside-left channel for Assombalonga. This time the striker takes a touch before rippling the side netting from a tight-ish angle.
32 min: Adomah drops a shoulder to earn some space on the left, then whips high into the Boro box. Snodgrass rises over Friend, and should be planting his header on target, but over it goes from close range.
31 min: Howson, quarterbacking from deep, finds Assombalonga down the inside-left channel. The striker has a yard on Chester, but thrashes a wild shot high and left of the target when he really should have worked Johnstone.
29 min: As Terry continues to limp around, Traore wins a corner down the Boro right. The first corner leads to another, and then Hutton very nearly eyebrows one into the top left of his own goal. A third corner to come, this time from the left. And this time Hutton batters a clearing header off his own line, the corner having been swung in at pace by Traore.
27 min: Besic attempts to inject some life into Boro’s play, bursting down the inside-right channel but failing to find the nearby Assombalonga with a lay-off. Terry, chasing Besic, might have taken a knock or pulled something there. He’s hopping around a bit, anyway.
25 min: A stat on Sky which may give Boro pause: Villa are unbeaten this season after scoring the first goal.
23 min: Villa hit the right-hand corner deep. Terry rises at the far post, Randolph having been taken out of play, but can only bundle the ball wide left. Boro were living dangerously there, though, and Villa are very much on top now.
22 min: Traore slides in on Grealish. He catches the Villa man on the back of his leg. Accidental, but oof, ow, ooyah, etc. From the free kick, Jedinak’s backwards header threatens to loop into the top right. Randolph claims, but clatters into the post and drops the ball, out for a corner.
20 min: Grealish dribbles in from the left, Gazza style, but his shot from just inside the box isn’t up to the quality of the run. Randolph gathers the pea-roller.
19 min: Snodgrass falls over while dribbling down the right. He grabs the ball, wanting a free kick. But there was nothing wrong with the attention of Friend, and so that’s a free kick to Boro instead. There’s quite an edgy feel to this match; don’t be surprised if it boils over into a brouhaha at some point.
17 min: The Riverside took a while to process that goal, so absurdly simple it seemed. Boro try to respond immediately. A throw’s won deep in Villa territory down the left. Friend spends an age towelling off the ball to get extra purchase … then flings it straight out of play for a goal kick.
GOAL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak 15)
Well this was simple! Adomah wins a corner for Villa down the left. Then Jedinak rises to meet Grealish’s corner at the left-hand corner of the six-yard box, guiding it into the bottom right. There’s nobody on the post, so in it flies!
13 min: Hourihane, who was pushing his luck in the first 30 seconds of this match, goes in the book. It’s for hanging an arm into the startled grid of Besic, as the pair contest a high ball. Terry critiques the referee’s work: he’s told in no uncertain terms to stop his yap.
12 min: Besic looks in the mood for this. Twice he runs at the Villa defence within the space of 20 seconds or so. On both occasions, the visitors look to be in a state of panic and only just manage to stop Besic in full flow from breaking through.
11 min: Shotton sends a Delap-style throw into the Villa box from the right. It’s half cleared, to Besic, who caresses a dipping screamer inches wide of the top-left corner. Le Tissier-esque. A pleasing 90s vibe to minute 11: one for the mums and dads.
9 min: But Boro respond to that period of pressure well, Besic dribbing at great speed down the inside-right channel. He’s crowded out of it before he can shoot. But they come again, Friend and Downing combining well to earn another corner, this time on the left.
7 min: Villa are beginning to dominate these early stages. Grealish is buzzing around with purpose. His prompting pushes Boro back. There’s a little space for Snodgrass on the edge of the box, but instead of shooting he tries to slide the ball forward for Grabban. Wrong decision. Boro intercept and clear their lines.
5 min: It’s high-octane stuff. And a little bit scrappy. Passing moves at a premium. A lot of tackles flying in. Howson crashes into Grealish, leaving the Villa man on the floor. No free kick. All very old-fashioned, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
3 min: … Traore loops an obvious ball in from the right and it’s easily snaffled by Johnstone.
2 min: An ear-bothering noise at the Riverside. Howson bursts down the right and wins the first corner of the match. From which …
And we’re off! Villa get the party started. Hourihane clatters into Clayton, and gets a good talking-to from the ref for sliding in studs showing, forcefully, not totally within reason. Had there been more than 15 seconds on the clock, that might have been a booking.
The teams are out! Boro are in their red shirts with famous white stripe, while Villa play in second-choice black. There’s a thundering atmosphere at the Riverside, ahead of this crucial match. And it’s been a tear-jerking one too: the popular Leo Percovich took to the centre circle to emotionally thank fans for their support in the wake of the recent tragic car accident that took the lives of the 50-year-old Uruguayan’s young daughters Antonella and Valentina. We’ll be off in a minute.
Tony Pulis speaks – and is asked about Boro’s record of only winning one game all season against teams who finished in the top six. “The game is the game, no two games are the same. We have to approach it in the right manner, make sure we do our best, and give everything. If we get the breaks, and things go our way, then fine. But if we don’t, we still have the second game to come. But the teams we have played recently – the Derbys, the Bristol Citys, the Millwalls – they’ve all been up there. We’ve won those games.”
Steve Bruce speaks! “People hit form and people drop out of form a little bit. Rotating in recent weeks has enabled me to make sure everybody is ready if needed. That’s been vitally important. We’ve cemented our place in the play-offs for a long time, so it’s enabled me to do that. But the team I have picked today are the ones that have predominantly got us into this position. I think it’s only fair that they’re the ones to try and take us a little bit further. No doubt Tony has sprinkled a little bit of his magic, and they’re the in-form team of the division. We’re two really good teams who have been competing against each other so it should be the makings of a classic game!”
The winners of this tie will face either Derby County or Fulham in the Wembley final in a fortnight’s time. The Cottagers have been everybody’s favourites to get through the other semi, though the odds on the Rams springing a surprise at the expense of the current hipsters’ choice have shortened considerably in the wake of their hard-fought victory in the first leg at Pride Park last night. Nick Miller was there to report on proceedings.
Pre-match reading: Our very own Louise Taylor previews the big game, on a day when Leo Percovich, Boro’s former goalkeeping coach, returns to the Riverside in poignant circumstances.
Tony Pulis always said he would name the same XI that started Boro’s last game, the 2-2 draw at Ipswich. And he’s done exactly that. It means Patrick Bamford, whose last-minute equaliser in that match was his 13th goal of the season, stays on the bench.
Steve Bruce rings the changes, having named an experimental Villa side for the 1-0 defeat at Millwall. Mark Bunn, Josh Onomah, Scott Hogan and Jonathan Kodjia drop to the bench, while James Bree and Henri Lansbury miss out altogether. In come Sam Johnstone, Ahmed Elmohamady, John Terry, Robert Snodgrass, Jack Grealish and Lewis Grabban.
Middlesbrough: Randolph, Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend, Howson, Clayton, Besic, Traore, Assombalonga, Downing.
Subs: Konstantopoulos, Da Silva, Leadbitter, Bamford, Cranie, Fry, Harrison.
Aston Villa: Johnstone, Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton, Jedinak, Snodgrass, Hourihane, Grealish, Adomah, Grabban.
Subs: Samba, Whelan, Hogan, Onomah, Bjarnason, Kodjia, Bunn.
Referee: Robert Madley (West Yorkshire).
In January 1950, legendary inside-forward Wilf Mannion inspired Middlesbrough to a 3-0 FA Cup victory over Aston Villa. The tie had gone to a second replay, at neutral Elland Road, which meant the teams would play each other on five occasions that season. For the record, Villa had the better of it in the League, winning 4-0 at Villa Park just five days later.
The clubs will meet again and again and again and again this season, as well. By the time this new-fangled play-off semi-final has been decided, these famous old clubs will have racked up five meetings in a season for the first time in 68 years. Once again Villa have had the better of it in the League – Robert Snodgrass scoring the only goal in the two games, at the Riverside just before the turn of the year – while Boro have prevailed in the cup competitions, Patrick Bamford’s brace doing for Villa in the League Cup. So this is in the balance.
Middlesbrough are hoping to bounce back to the Premier League at the first time of asking. This is their fourth play-off campaign. In the past, they’ve lost a final to Norwich City in 2015, and a semi against Neil Warnock’s promotion-bound Notts County in 1991. They also famously leapfrogged Chelsea in the two-legged 1988 final, winning promotion while sending the Blues down.
By contrast, grand old Villa – the seven-time English and one-time European champions, slumming it in the lower divisions for a second year – are contesting the play-offs for the very first time. But they’re not entering the lion’s den without whip or chair: their boss Steve Bruce has successfully navigated the play-offs twice before, with Birmingham City in 2002 and Hull in 2016.
This promises to be a cracker, then, between two of English football’s bigger names. And we’re not just talking about Brucie and Tony Pulis. It’s Boro! It’s Villa! It’s the semi-final of the Championship play-offs, so close to the promised land of the Premier League! It’s on!
Kick off: 5.15pm.
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