On the evidence of last season, there’s no better team in the Championship than Middlesbrough when a game is played on Middlesbrough’s terms. The FA Cup fourth round win over Manchester City at the Etihad in January proved that much, and it probably explains why the Teessiders are the most talked-about team for the title this season.
Sadly for Aitor Karanka’s men, they must now put themselves through another gruelling 46-game marathon because the play-off final 11 weeks ago wasn’t played on their terms. They were well-beaten by a hungrier, more aggressive and more masculine Norwich side. And there were plenty of other occasions last season when it just didn’t happen for Boro, the memories of which make Preston an enticing proposition at 11/5.
Only five weeks before Wembley, Boro had frustrated the Canaries on their own patch with a performance that typified them at their best. They scored early and defended doggedly thereafter, with a full 90 minutes separating Alex Tettey’s own goal from the final whistle. It was a victory that put Boro in contention for automatic promotion but, ultimately, in showing their hand so vividly to Alex Neil, it probably cost them everything.
Neil learned that the first 20-25 minutes are crucial. If you don’t seize control of the opening exchanges then Boro are liable to take advantage. It doesn’t matter how early they score, if they break the deadlock at any stage, you’re a long way back to level-pegging, never mind victory. The dilemma for Karanka now is how to win matches differently.
The stats tell their own story. Middlesbrough completed the half-time/full-time double on all 16 occasions when they were ahead at the interval last term, yet on the 13 occasions when they conceded first, they fired a blank on seven occasions and mustered just four equalisers across 678 trailing minutes, which works out only marginally better than one goal every three hours.
With that in mind, a trip to newly-promoted Preston on the opening weekend constitutes a stiff challenge because Simon Grayson’s men are direct and physical, possessing many of the attributes that Boro sometimes don’t fancy. Indeed, North End now find themselves at this level because, only 24 hours earlier, they did to Swindon what Norwich did to Boro.
It was a whirlwind finish for the Lilywhites, having blown the chance of automatic promotion at Colchester on the final day, so it was probably wise of Grayson to keep his summer preparations low-key with a short trip up the M6 to Scotland (via Carlisle on the way home) favoured over the now-standard warm-weather training camp. It’s a gritty build-up that embodies much of what should enable Preston to be competitive at this level.
And it starts with a bang. This game is all about the first goal. If Preston can continue where they left off last term, breaking the deadlock in 22 of their last 23 matches (17 times before the interval, eight times inside the opening 15 minutes), then the 9/2 about them landing the Preston/Preston half-time/full-time double result is a wager well worth having onside.
For more information about Mike Holden’s shot-based ratings system, follow this link.