Boro host the first leg of the Championship play-off semi-finals against Aston Villa on Saturday (5:15pm kick off).
Tony Pulis’s team go into the game unbeaten in four, whilst visitors Villa have picked up three wins in their last five games.
However, Steve Bruce’s side were winless in the last two of those five games; one ended in a draw to play-off rivals Derby County whilst the other was a narrow defeat to Millwall on the final game of the season.
Before that, Villa were on a three-game winning won without conceding, which included a comprehensive 4-0 away to Ipswich Town.
Boro too were on a three-game winning streak, defeating three play-off rivals on the spin until a draw against the Tractor Boys last weekend ended their chance to make it four in four.
Can Boro use their momentum to their own advantage, or will Aston Villa take the wind out of their sails?
Tony Pulis revealed that the squad, with the exception of long-term absentee Rudy Gestede, are fit and raring to go with no new injuries to contend with.
“The players have been brilliant, really buoyant this week,” he said. “After a tough game at Ipswich in very tough conditions, they’ve been very focused and right on the front foot. We just want the game to start.
“Someone said ‘have you got any injuries?’
“You could have got a bus out there and knocked a few of them over, and they’d have bounced back up to be ready to play.”
He was far rfom coy about the team selection, and told press that he will field an unchanged side against Villa.
“My team is the team that I picked for Ipswich,” he said. “I’m not hiding anything. That’s my team and that’s the way we’ll go out and play.
“For me, it’s probably more difficult to get into my team than out of it – and if you’ve got the shirt and show effort and commitment I like to have stable teams and continuity.”
For Aston Villa, midfielder Birkir Bjarnason has recovered from a back problem, but full-back Neil Taylor (hamstring) and Manchester United loanee Axel Tuanzebe (ankle) will miss out.
What the managers say
“I think we all know what to expect – they are a typical Tony Pulis side and 40 per cent of the goals they have scored since he has been there have come from set-pieces.
“We will have to handle that. He has brought stability to that group in key positions, and they have just come from the Premier League.
“They are big opposition. The attacking players on both sides are in good form, and if you want to succeed, that is the area where your big players need to do well.”
“We have to be positive. The four teams in there will be positive. The main thing is that we remain focused and we continue to play in the right manner and give it our best shot.
“You don’t want to come off the park without leaving anything out there.
“It’ll be difficult. I’ve got great respect for Steve (Bruce), they’re fantastic club and they’ve got one of the strongest squads, if not the strongest, in the Championship. They’ve got the ability to rest players and it’ll be a tough game for us.”
- These two sides met three times in all competitions this season with each side winning once on the road (D1). Including both legs of this season’s play-off tie, it will be the second time that both teams have faced each other five times in a single season – also 1949-50.
- The home team has failed to win any of the past 11 matches between Middlesbrough and Aston Villa in all competitions, with the Villans being the last side to secure a home victory in March 2005.
- Aston Villa have lost just one of their past eight away games against Middlesbrough in all competitions and none of the past five (W4 D1).
- The team to finish in fourth place has won the second-tier play-offs in two of the past four seasons (QPR in 2013-14 and Hull City in 2015-16), as many as in the previous 22 campaigns combined (Leicester City in 1993-94 and Charlton in 1997-98).
- Fifth-placed Huddersfield won promotion last season, while the team in fifth has not won the play-offs (current format) in consecutive second-tier campaigns since 2001-02 (Birmingham City) and 2002-03 (Wolves).
- This will be Aston Villa’s first ever play-off match in the Football League, while Middlesbrough are competing in their fourth play-off campaign and first since 2014-15 when they lost in the Championship play-off final to Norwich City.
- Middlesbrough successfully gained promotion via the second-tier play-offs in 1987-88, getting the better of top-flight Chelsea over two legs in the final. In 1990-91 they were eliminated by Neil Warnock’s Notts County in the semi-final, who went on to win promotion.
- Steve Bruce has won more promotions to the Premier League than any other manager (4). Two of those promotions have been via the play-offs – in 2001-02 with Birmingham City and 2015-16 with Hull City.
- Tony Pulis has led two teams to promotion in his managerial career in the Football League – finishing second with Gillingham in the fourth tier in 1995-96 and taking Stoke into the Premier League in 2007-08. However, Pulis’ only experience in the play-offs ended in a penalty shoot-out defeat for Gillingham by Man City in the third-tier final in 1998-99.
- Middlesbrough have lost just two of their past 14 league games (W8 D4), while Aston Villa have won once in their past five on the road in the Championship (D1 L3).