Middlesbrough face a must-win relegation game against Bournemouth
Steve Agnew must rally the troops and go all out in an attempt to take the full three points away from Bournemouth this weekend. The Cherries need simply to acquire three more points to be sure of their Premier League status for another season. Middlesbrough's outlook is far bleaker, as they sit six points adrift of Hull City and the breaking pack outside of the drop zone, albeit with a game in hand.
It's a testing 10 days ahead for the Teessiders, whose upcoming midweek game against Sunderland -- in effect, the game in hand -- will be somewhat meaningless if Boro fail to pick up all three points at Bournemouth. It's virtually impossible now for Sunderland to escape the mire, but Boro will take faith from recent positive performances.
Despite falling 4-2 at Hull City a few weeks back, Agnew's men seemed to have found their scoring feet again after a barren few months with only a handful of goals registered. Last Monday's game at the Riverside against Arsenal was a compelling affair, with Boro eventually losing 2-1 to the Gunners, but able to take comfort from a spirited performance and a well-taken goal from Alvaro Negredo.
Boro's recent defensive injury woes eased somewhat last time out with the return of popular left-back George Friend from a niggling ankle injury. However, it was at the mercy of the in-form Fabio, who has improved with regular performances during former head coach's Aitor Karanka's reign, after he hobbled off on just 17 minutes during the defeat to Arsenal.
With loan success centre-back Calum Chambers still side-lined, and the recent underwhelming output of full-back Antonio Barragan, Boro have been on the back foot with their back four for a couple of months now. Earlier on in the season, when their attacking left much to be desired and paid little dividends, they could almost certainly rely on their defence to secure a point at least. This hasn't been the case in the past few weeks, which have seen the club slip perilously down into the bottom three.
Problems at the back solidified in the lead-up to the Arsenal game with the news that first-choice goalkeeper Victor Valdes was out with a rib problem. Brad Guzan did relatively well but blotted his copybook with a lack of authority over the defensive wall for a dangerous Arsenal free kick, which subsequently resulted in their first goal off the foot of Alexis Sanchez. Obviously a seasoned pro with plenty of top-flight experience at Aston Villa, Guzan should be a safe pair of hands going into the Bournemouth game and will hopefully feel more prepared now.
Opting to play Negredo up front seemed to pay dividends for Agnew when the Spanish striker found himself on the end of a perfectly weighted Stewart Downing cross, which he converted beautifully. Agnew is following the familiar Karanka formation of beginning games with one lone frontman and switching to two up top around the hour mark when change is required. He seems to be a fan of Rudy Gestede, who seems to be making positive moves and has contributed a handful of goals since his arrival in January, despite limited appearances.
Given that a point is not really enough from this game, it may merit Agnew going all out from the off and starting with a 4-4-2 structure, in order to give Boro the best possible chance of creating attacking opportunities. Downing and Gaston Ramirez will be key in the middle of the park for this type of setup, and whiz-kid Adama Traore needs to be played with caution given his hit-and-miss output and tendency to leave holes in midfield as he pushes forward at pace.
Bournemouth will be yet another tough test for Boro who have struggled with almost every challenge put to them in this campaign. The Cherries have suffered heavy defeats to Tottenham and Chelsea of late but they are always a threat when they get in front of goal. Injury to midfield loanee Jack Wilshere could give Boro the advantage there, but the simple fact that victory equals survival for Bournemouth means that it would be a surprise if the Teessiders took any points back home to the north east.
Catherine Wilson ESPN FC's Middlesbrough blogger. You can follow her on Twitter: @Basslady