The first leg was not one for the neutrals. But Coventry City’s 0-0 draw with Middlesbrough has left the tie in the balance as we head up to the north-east. If it were played out on a pair of scales however, many would have them leaning towards Michael Carrick’s Boro.
They didn’t let Coventry have a single effort on target at the CBS Arena, finished five points above them in the league and have only been beaten by Burnley at the Riverside this season. The bookies agree, Boro are just 1/2 with Betfred to qualify while the Sky Blues are 6/4.
But all hope is not lost for those of a Sky Blue persuasion. They may now face one of the most daunting tasks in the second tier in winning at the Riverside, but they’ve also faced Boro three times this season without defeat. The first of those was Chris Wilder’s final game in charge, a 1-0 win for the home side at the CBS, while the last two fixtures have both ended in draws.
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No side has scored more goals since Michael Carrick came in than Boro and their rise up the table has been supersonic, with their attacking ability often able to blow teams away. They hit five past Norwich and Reading, four past Preston and three past Swansea and Hull in recent months. With Chuba Akpom’s number ten role proving particularly fruitful, Carrick has managed to make Boro a spectacular team to watch.
Marcus Forss has been moved to a wide right role while Cameron Archer has taken the role of the goalscoring number nine. With Hayden Hackney now shining in midfield, Boro are able to dominate possession while retaining that goalscoring edge that saw them score 84 goals in 46 regular league games.
Their dedication to playing out from the back is what often creates chances for them. Drawing the opposition onto them creates space in those attacking midfield areas for them to penetrate and so often they can tear teams apart after luring them in. So why haven’t they been able to do that against Mark Robins’ side so far this season?
Well, both league games can be put to one side. The first wasn’t Carrick and the second was a dead rubber for the hosts as they tried to keep key players fit on the final day, while Coventry just needed a point to secure a top six finish. The first leg felt like two teams desperate not to lose, yet we should see the development of their gameplans on Wednesday night.
Boro, who haven’t been that solid defensively in recent weeks, will be delighted with their clean sheet. Now they can go all out, play their natural game and try and blow away a Coventry side that few expected to finish in the top six. On paper, it should be possible and the most likely outcome is a Boro appearance at Wembley later this month.
But Coventry aren’t out of it. It may feel like they missed an opportunity to take a lead to the north east, but a 0-0 could be a good result for them. Boro are a superior footballing side, that are keen to dominate the ball, but that can play to Coventry’s strength at the Riverside. In perfect contrast to Carrick’s side, the Sky Blues don’t particularly want the ball. They’re far more effective when breaking at pace, with direct passes up to Viktor Gyokeres.
Although he was well-marshalled by the duo of Darragh Lenihan and Paddy McNair, if Coventry can release him into the channels he can cause issues. Also, it’s easier to play counter-attacking football away from home. Robins is happy for his side to sit in and absorb pressure, before rapidly firing the ball forward, however this is more difficult to implement in front of an expectant home crowd.
City need to frustrate their hosts, limit them to as few goalscoring opportunities as possible and then hit them on the break when they can. The shorter this tie is - and it is now down to 90 minutes - the better for the visitors and they may benefit from a more attacking Boro side, as daft as they may sound.
The bookies have probably got this one about right. Boro at their very best are difficult to stop, but Coventry have managed to avoid defeat three times already. Robins doesn’t mind the odds being against him, but his masterplan will have to be spot on if the Sky Blues are going to come away from the Riverside with a positive result. All eyes and expectations are now on Middlesbrough. And that will suit the Sky Blues down to the ground.