Whatever camp you’re in, it cannot be underestimated what a fantastic job Tony Pulis has done at Boro, picking up a team languishing and struggling for consistency under Garry Monk, to a well-oiled machine. I still occasionally see rumblings of discontent over Pulis over Twitter with words like “dinosaur” being used, and for whatever reason Pulis has never been able to win some people over after being tarred with a “long ball merchant” brush.
What’s also been refreshing is rather than come in and attempt to spend more money (only really loans such as Besic), he’s examined the players and given to him and adapted, but more importantly he’s pushed them on and given the players challenges to prove their worth. Whatever the outcome at the end of the season, we’ve finally got a plan in place and a squad capable of pushing on next season if we’re still in this division.
Now let’s turn our attention to our most likely opponents in the playoffs, Aston Villa. Before the season started, I quite fancied them for the top 2 spots along with Wolves, Fulham and ourselves.. Again, a little bit like ourselves they got off to a slow start but Steve Bruce has finally kicked them into gear with the highlight of the season being the dismantling of a very good Wolves team 4-1. If they hadn’t dropped some soft points along the way (losing to Bolton, drawing with Hull and losing to QPR in March) they could’ve been closer to the automatic spots.
On paper, Aston Villa does have a very impressive squad full of quality and experience as well as a top manager at this level, so it’s going to be a very tough test especially second leg at Villa Park. I think they probably have one of, if not, the strongest midfield in the division, you only have to look at the wealth of option they have such as Grealish, Snodgrass, Hourihane, Lansbury and former Boro favourite Adomah who has had his best goal-scoring season to date.
Having said that, Boro is a very different animal these days to when we played Villa each time this season. The first encounter was a stale early season draw under Gary Monk and the second meeting at the Riverside, Pulis had only just stepped into the role and was yet to make an impact on the team.
It should be two great games of football with two teams desperate to return to the top flight so I don’t think they’ll be a lot of goals over the two legs, it’ll be a question of who can hold their nerve and also more importantly, who doesn’t make a mistake.