After another poor game earlier on in the week that left supporters seething and frothing at the mouth, Aston Villa travel to the Riverside Stadium to face Middlesbrough in the 25th match of the season for the Claret & Blue. Villas’ absolutely woeful December now sees them failing to win in their last five matches, with injuries still racking up on what seems like a game to game basis. Falling out of a playoff position is not acceptable in the world of Aston Villa these days, but that is exactly what has happened. Now in 8th, Steve Bruce must continue on with a skeleton crew of players to try and get a grip on getting back into the playoff hunt.
After Albert Adomah laboured off of the field against Brentford in the 18th minute, loads of Villa fans were expecting the worst for their fabled winger. As fate would have it, the injury to Adomah is not considered to be one of an overly serious nature, but his status is doubtful for his return to his former club. Other injuries include John Terry, Chris Samba, Henri Lansbury, Jonathan Kodjia and Gabby Agbonlahor. Joshua Onomah, who tallied the lone goal for Villa in the defeat to Brentford in the last contest, seems to be totally healed from his foot injury and it would not be a surprise to see the young Spurs man in the first-team.
This will be the first match in charge for new Middlesbrough boss Tony Pulis, and it will be a real test for the new gaffer. Boro sacked Garry Monk last week after it was decided he was not the man to get the club directly back into the Premier League. Middlesbrough supporters are known to be passionate about how their club play football, and Pulis will undoubtedly do what he can to start that relationship off on the right foot. Pulis was known to play a 4-2-3-1 at West Brom, and it will be interesting to see if he sticks to that plan coming out of the gate against Villa. Pulis has a little bit of history on his side when it comes to facing clubs led by Steve Bruce at home. Pulis has never lost a home game against Steve Bruce, with five wins and one draw. Of those six contests between the two managers, Pulis has collected six clean sheets. Also, in 9 occasions visiting Riverside, Steve Bruce has never won a game, drawing once and losing eight times for various clubs he has coached. Not a very good sign for Aston Villa or Steve Bruce going into a game in which the Villa faithful will be yearning for a win.
The usual suspects for Boro will undoubtedly be selected by Pulis. Players such as Ryan Shotten, Stewart Downing, Ben Gibson and tenacious striker Britt Assombalonga will most likely not be forced out of the starting eleven by any means, even with Pulis taking charge and having to select players in such a short span of time. Former Aston Villa man Adama Traore is an interesting situation for Boro and Pulis. While Pulis has been known to fancy a winger who has pace, he does not care much for a mystery grab bag when it comes to players’ temperment and dedication. This will either see that Traore has a part to play for Boro, or might make an exit in the upcoming Janurary transfer window.
Middlesbrough have won their last two games and are definitely looking for three on the bounce. In their last game which was a 2-0 win over Bolton, Martin Braithwaite netted a goal and helped with an assist to a Brit Assombalonga goal. The Danish centre-forward could pose a great threat for the banged up back-line of Villa. Braithwaite has started in 15 games for Boro, netting five goals and assisting on 2. Not only has Braithwaite been turning a corner this season in terms of scoring and contributing, but his 347 accurate passes see him with an 80% success rate. Other than the usual players to always look out for in the starting eleven for Middlesbrough, it is worth keeping an eye on Braithwaite against Villa.
Already mentioning how badly the Villa supporters are begging for a win no matter the fashion, this may be a game for Sam Johnstone to really help steal one for Aston Villa. Even with the putrid form of Villa in the month of December, a ‘disaster’ in which Steve Bruce called it, Johnstone has not been in bad form. Of all goalkeepers to have made at least 25 saves in the Championship so far this season, Johnstone has the highest save percentage at 75%. While the defense of Aston Villa has had egg on their face more times than not lately, Johnstone has been there to bail them out with timely saves.