Well, my fellow Villans…it wasn’t what we wanted, yet here we are.
The Championship Playoffs. Did we all want Villa to go up automatically? Yes. Did we? No. Do you still believe we can achieve promotion through the playoffs? Well…would you bet against us?
Villa come into the 1st leg semi-final with a few injuries to report. Axel Tuanzebe will not feature due to injury as well as Neil Taylor. Taylor has a hamstring issue that has plagued him for the last little while, but Alan Hutton has proven he can feature at left-back of the rearguard and do it mightily well. At his pre-game press conference, Villa gaffer Steve Bruce has confirmed that Birkir Bjarnason is ready to go after suffering a back injury a fortnight ago. Aston Villa mainstay goalkeeper Sam Johnstone was widely considered as rested for the last game of the season against Millwall, but Steve Bruce has spilled the beans on why Johnstone didn’t feature. Johnstone and his girlfriend are expecting a child any day now, and Bruce thought it wise that Johnstone use his time in his personal life. Johnstone will not travel with the team to Middlesbrough, but will travel himself and be the starting keeper come hell or high water. I mean… birth or no birth.
While Villa will be wanting to get all they can out of the contest at The Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough manager Tony Pulis had some choice words about positive form and momentum carrying his squad over the line and into promotion:
“We have to be positive. The four teams in the playoffs, all of them will be positive. I think the important thing is make sure we’re focused and we understand the challenge ahead and that the players respond in the right manner. And that is to play the way we’ve been playing. Play with no inhibitions and make sure we give it the best shot. You don’t want to come off the park feeling you’ve left anything behind. I believe that’s very, very important.”
Although there is a percentage of Villa supporters that feel that Boro are ripe for the slaughter, this is not going to be an easy semi-final clash by any means. Middlesbrough have weapons at their disposal, especially a familiar weapon by the name of Adama Traore.
Traore has improved as a player since leaving Aston Villa, but he is still not at a level to be a world-beater. Since Tony Pulis took over, Adama has most certainly found a different gear. In 25 appearances under Pulis, Adama has scored five goals and assisted on ten. Those might be staggering stats for a casual fan of Middlesbrough, but let’s dive deeper into the overall statistics on the Boro man on the right-wing.
Four of Adamas’ five goals this year came from inside the 18-yard box. That statistic would probably floor a lot of people who are claiming he has a ability to shoot from long range when cutting inside from a wide position. He has a 72% passing accuracy, which means he is prone to the occasional wild pass there and again. 48 key passes this season are nothing to shake a stick at, but Adama does seem the be the main outlet for a Middlesbrough side who lack much creativity elsewhere on the pitch. 45% of his shots have been considered “on target”, while the large majority of them finding Row Z before they find the back of the net. According to Tony Pulis at a pre-game press conference, he feel that Adama has been ‘targeted’ and needs ‘protected’ to really shine in any game. Choice words by the Boro manager, but it still conjured the notion that if Adama isn’t allowed to run free, Boro is going to have a hard time. This should ring loud and clear to Steve Bruce and his management team. If they keep Adama contained through tactics and preparation, Boro is going to be forced to find a ‘Plan B’ against Aston Villa.
Aston Villa are chasing the road to the Premier League in their own way and the team seems to be up for it. Multiple pictures have been shared through social media outlets of the squad smiling, generally looking loose yet still training hard. While there are two-legs to the Championship Playoff Semi-Final, it would be of real delight to see The Claret & Blue give it all they have away from home to bring back a definitive edge at Villa Park for the reverse fixture on Tuesday.