Middlesbrough vs Norwich | Monday 25 May | Wembley Stadium | 16:00
With a place in the top flight of English football at stake and £120m cash, it’s all to play for when Middlesbrough and Norwich City face each other at Wembley Stadium on Monday night. The sides were separated by a single point in the season – Norwich finishing third, Middlesbrough fourth – while Boro won their most recent duel 1-0 away at Carrow Road in April.
To Win (90mins)
Middlesbrough spent most of the season challenging for automatic promotion and seemed to have it in their own hands when they won at Carrow Road against Norwich with three matches remaining. But a calamitous 4-3 defeat at Fulham, in which they were punished for chasing victory in injury time, knocked them back and they had to go into the play-offs with the biggest sense of regret. They were frustrated and rightly so, and took it out on Mark Warburton’s Brentford side by thrashing them 5-1 on aggregate in the semi-final of the play-offs. The Teessiders fully deserve the chance to play in the Premier League again especially after their showing against Manchester City where they won 2-0 at the Etihad Stadium in the FA Cup. In the final they’ll be up against a Norwich team they’ve managed to hold a respectable record against, losing just once in their last eleven meetings with five wins including this season’s double.
Manager Aitor Karanka learned his trade as Jose Mourinho's assistant manager at Real Madrid and sets his teams up in that same mould with defence top priority and asks his players to be composed and expressive in possession. Karanka's side had the best defensive record in the Championship having conceded eight fewer goals than anyone else. It has been down to a highly-organised defensive set-up where the discipline of central midfielders Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton is vital. However, Boro are by no means negative: by contrast, their game is based on high-pressing that depends a lot on gaining and then retaining possession in the opponent's half. When they set in motion going forwards, few can live with the movement of players such as Lee Tomlin, Jelle Vossen and Patrick Bamford. Bamford was voted Championship Player of the Year by the division's managers and the Chelsea loanee has continued the clinical form he showed on loan at MK Dons and Derby last season. The England Under-21 striker has netted seventeen league goals this term and he’ll be looking to fire his team into the Premier League.
Norwich were hotly tipped to return to the Premier League at the first time of asking after relegation last year having started the season superbly, but a poor spell in October and November saw them drop away from contention with Neil Adams resigning from his nine month spell. But in came Alex Neil who presided over a dramatic improvement that saw Norwich lose only three times in the next four months. Since Neil left Hamilton Academical in January, he has amassed a 68% win ratio in the 22 games he's been in charge with fifteen triumphs. Had they beaten Middlesbrough at home in April instead of losing 1-0, they may well have gone up automatically. In the play-offs, Norwich overcame arch-rivals Ipswich Town 4-2 on aggregate and Middlesbrough will be the final hurdle. Karanka's side will prove tough to break down, but Norwich have goals throughout their team.
Bradley Johnson has netted fifteen times from midfield this season while forwards Cameron Jerome, Gary Hooper and Lewis Grabban—who will return from suspension for the final—have all reached double figures as well. The Canaries have quality and experience throughout their squad but it is their midfield that gives them an edge. Alex Tettey, Jonny Howson and the excellent Johnson provide a base that is technically and physically adept in equal measure, able to move the ball on sharply and to compete for it. Johnson showcased his qualities as a defensive midfielder during Norwich's three-year stay in the Premier League and has now added goals to his repertoire with fifteen from a deep-lying position. Further forward, Wes Hoolahan is an intelligent mover between midfield and attack while strikers Jerome and Hooper are proven net rattlers.
VERDICT: Middlesbrough 18/10
Both sides are priced well above even money which should tell you how close this contest is expected to be. With that being said, Middlesbrough have already beaten Norwich twice in the league this season, winning 4-0 and 1-0. While Karanka’s side are clinical in front of goal, they also boast the meanest defence in the Championship with just 37 goals conceded. Back Boro to return to the top flight with a hard-fought victory.