Norwich City and Middlesbrough will do battle for a place in the Premier League and the estimated £120 million windfall that will come from playing in the world’s most watch league. Since their introduction in the 1986, the play-offs have produced some memorable entertainment, drama and equal shares of heart ache and ecstasy for teams involved. For the neutral fan, they can be compelling viewing and few can argue against that regardless of their views on the fairness of the system. For those with vested interests it is the best and worst way to find out your promotion fate, victory is the ultimate high but defeat is the bitterest pill to swallow. Add all those factors to a match which looks extremely close on paper and you have genuine recipe for a game befitting the occasion.
With such high stakes, nerve and temperament will be crucial facets to success for the victor and winner will likely be the team that manages the occasion rather than allow the occasion to manage them. Both sides boast impressive defensive records, Middlesbrough with the better of the two conceding less than a goal a match over the season. Norwich have the clear attacking advantage, scoring twenty more goals over the season than their Teesside opponents and they have a greater number of options at their disposal in that department. Lewis Grabban will be eligible to line up after his three match ban which gives Alex Neil a trio of strikers that have contributed forty three goals in Norwich’s league campaign.
Middlesbrough’s strength over the season has been their defence and in particular the ever present figures of Daniel Ayala and Ben Gibson. They have had to build their back four around those two due to a variety of injuries and eligibility issues with loan players. Adam Clayton has been a vital part of the defensive effort of Middlesbrough in his central midfield role and had been extremely effective in both breaking up opposition play in midfield and also providing an extra body in defensive line. In much of their matches, Boro have had the lesser share of possession but the counter attacking threat headed by Patrick Bamford has proved potent.
Norwich have a poor recent record against Middlesbrough, losing both home and away to them and winning only one of the last twelve meetings. Such records count for very little in one-off encounters and both teams will be aware of this, I feel this match is all about Norwich and their approach, Boro were able to capitalise on an early goal in last month’s meeting by forcing the attacking play of The Canaries down the flanks. In the final analysis, I am siding with Norwich to gain promotion as they have big match experience throughout their starting eleven and bench. They also have a great versatility in their attacking options and I fancy them to gain a victory but not without the odd nervy moment and they can win in extra time.