|Middlesbrough 0 v 2 Ipswich Town
Saturday, 9th December 2023 Kick-off 15:00
McKenna: Boro Will Be Strong Despite Injuries and Suspensions
Friday, 8th Dec 2023 12:26
Town boss Kieran McKenna believes Saturday’s opponents Middlesbrough, who are managed by his close friend and former Manchester United colleague Michael Carrick, will be a strong side, despite potentially having up to 10 players injured or suspended.
Having finished fourth and reached the play-off semi-final last season, Middlesbrough started this campaign slowly, failing to win any their first seven Championship matches, but subsequently won six on the bounce.
Latterly, their form has been mixed, winning two, drawing one and losing three of their last six league matches.
Last weekend, they were beaten 3-2 at Leeds having been reduced to 10 men following Anfernee Dijksteel's 62nd-minute dismissal for two yellow cards.
They sit 12th in the Championship table, 18 points behind the second-placed Blues, but only three points off the play-offs.
At home they have won five, drawn one and lost three, to Millwall, QPR and Stoke. They are unbeaten in their last two at the Riverside, a 1-0 victory over leaders Leicester and then a 4-0 thrashing of Preston just over a week ago.
Only five sides have scored more than Boro’s 31 goals - including Town, the division’s top scorers on 41 - while seven teams in the Championship have conceded fewer than their total of 29.
“They're a really strong team. I think their form in the second half of last season was fantastic,” McKenna said.
“I think you see in the Championship, not just at Middlesbrough but with other teams, they lost a really, really good player in Chuba Akpom [who joined Ajax in the summer], who was maybe the most dominant player in the league in the second half of last season and they also had three or four loanees who were big, big players for them in the second half of last season [who moved on].
“And when you miss out on the play-offs, then you have to rebuild a large chunk of your team and replace what were very big players for them.
“And have a very good home record as well, so we're not under any illusions of the scale of the challenge ahead of us, and we know we're going to have to be our very, very best to get anything from the game.”
In addition to Dijksteel, the Teessiders also have Isaiah Jones suspended, while eight players could also miss out through injury.
Quizzed on what impact that has on his preparation for the game or whether he takes the reports with some scepticism, McKenna said: “I know they'll have a really strong team out. I think they had a couple of players missing for the last game, who we think have got a really good chance of being back.
“So I know whichever team they pick they'll be really, really strong. They've got a deep squad and a really strong squad and they've got good cover in each position.
“So I know they'll be really strong and we'll prepare for them as well as we possibly can.”
Having conceded first within the first quarter of an hour in six successive games, the Blues netted within the first six minutes of their last two matches, the home victories over Millwall and Coventry.
“Look, that's the way it goes sometimes. I do think sometimes it's about being calm and not over-reading into each situation.
“In the West Brom game, I said at the time that they scored from the first corner that they got. Before that, against Rotherham they scored the first time they entered our final third.
“And you're going to have more good results than not, you're going to have more good starts than not.
McKenna will have one eye on the Blues’ upcoming games at Watford on Tuesday and at home to local rivals Norwich City next Saturday, so will look to switch personnel to some degree from what might be viewed as his strongest line-up at some stage over the next eight days.
Massimo Luongo, a former Boro player, and Brandon Williams, who played under Carrick at Manchester United, are both suspended for one match having reached five bookings, giving the duo an enforced rest this weekend.
Vaclav Hladky will be in goal with Harry Clarke set to continue at right-back and Leif Davis on the left.
At the centre of the defence, Axel Tuanzebe could return for Luke Woolfenden on the right alongside Cameron Burgess.
In central midfield, Jack Taylor looks set to come in for the absent Luongo partnering skipper Sam Morsy.
Conor Chaplin will be in his usual role at the centre of the three behind main striker George Hirst with Wes Burns on the right and Nathan Broadhead on the left.
For Boro, central defender Paddy McNair was forced off with a back injury at Elland Road and is a big doubt for Saturday’s match.
Dael Fry (hamstring) and Hayden Hackney (groin) are on the way back from their injuries but with Carrick having said they weren’t particularly close to facing Leeds last week.
Riley McGree (plantar fascia) and Marcus Forss have also been absent since October and neither is thought to be ready for a return against the Blues, while defenders Darragh Lenihan and Tommy Smith are out long term having undergone ankle surgery and Nottingham Forest loan midfielder Lewis O’Brien is another definitely out having also gone under the knife.
“I think we’re better off talking about who is fit and available because we are down on the numbers,” Carrick told the Northern Echo.
“Those that are available and are playing are doing well. We’ve got a long list of players not available for various reasons, but that’s not my focus.
“It’s more right now about getting the boys who are fit ready for the game on Saturday. Boys get injuries and suspensions and it’s easy to talk about that, but it’s ultimately about the game and preparing for that.
“It’s a great challenge for us. Certain players who hadn’t played so much are now in the team and having an impact, which is great.
“These things always provide opportunities and I’m really looking forward to this game, and the spell of games, to seeing what we’re capable of doing. The boys are in good spirits and are playing well.
“We felt a disappointment about last week, but we’re looking forward to what we can do next.”
Regarding McNair’s potential availability, Carrick said: “We’ll have to wait and see. He had a back spasm and it’s taken a while to settle. Whether it settles in time or not, we’ll have to wait and see. It is what it is and we’ll deal with it.”
Among those who could come into the team is former Blues central defender Matt Clarke, who missed the start of the season with a back injury.
“I think Clarkey has been ready for a good number of weeks,” Carrick continued. “It’s just that opportunity. I’ve said it a lot, sometimes you’re in the squad and it feels like your opportunity is a long way off, you can’t see your next game because there are two or three players ahead of you. But quite quickly it can change. Clarkey is ready.
“He showed that in terms of his performance last week. It was great to get him on the pitch before that and I said then that he was a big part of the squad and he was ready to play and that doesn’t change now.”
Town have had the better of Middlesbrough over the years, winning 30 games (28 in the league), drawing 16 (16) and losing 23 (22).
The teams last met at the Riverside in December 2018 when Jordan Hugill netted a contentious 37th-minute penalty and sub Marcus Tavernier added a second on 72 as Middlesbrough beat Town 2-0.
The Blues had the better of the few first-half chances but found themselves behind from the spot after Jordan Spence was adjudged to have fouled Hugill, with Tavernier’s goal sealing the three points for the Teessiders in the second half.
Two months previously at Portman Road, early goals from Mo Besic and Stewart Downing saw Middlesbrough to a comfortable 2-0 victory over Paul Hurst’s Blues.
Besic netted the opener on 12 and Downing added the second four minutes later following an error from Blues skipper Luke Chambers with Town never looking like taking anything from the match.
Town skipper Morsy was with the Teessiders for the 2020/21 season before rejoining his former Chesterfield and Wigan boss Paul Cook at Portman Road that summer. In total, he made 34 starts and two sub appearances for Middlesbrough, scoring once.
Fellow midfielder Luongo also joined the Blues from Boro. The Australian international signed for the Teessiders in the summer of 2022 but never made a first-team appearance and, following a trial, joined Town in January.
Boro central defender Clarke is from Barham and came through the Blues’ academy. The centre-half made one senior start and four sub appearances before moving to Portsmouth in the deal which saw Adam Webster join Town.
Full-back Hayden Coulson, who hasn’t featured for the Teessiders since August, was on loan with the Blues in the first half of the 2021/22 season but had his spell cut short after injury restricted him to only six appearances.
Town were keen to sign Matt Crooks in the summer of 2021 when the midfielder joined Boro from Rotherham, while the Blues also targeted the loan addition of Morgan Rogers in January 2021 when the then-Manchester City youngster instead signed for Lincoln City.
Saturday’s referee is Dean Whitestone from Northamptonshire, who has shown 41 yellow cards and one red in 13 games so far this season.
Whitestone’s last Town match was the 1-0 Carabao Cup defeat to Fulham in September 2020 in which he kept his cards in his pockets throughout.
He also refereed the 1-0 FA Cup third round defeat at Accrington Stanley in January 2019 in which he booked Flynn Downes and no one else.
Prior to that he was in charge of the Middlesbrough game at Portman Road in February 2012, which was abandoned after 37 minutes due to a frozen pitch with the score at 0-0.
Earlier that season, Whitestone was in in the middle for the 2-2 draw at Cardiff City in which he booked two Bluebirds, Michael Chopra and Keith Andrews.
He also refereed the 2-0 home defeat to Plymouth Argyle in March 2010 and the 1-1 draw at Reading in November 2009, again issuing no cards on each occasion.
In November 2008 he awarded both sides a penalty as Town drew 1-1 at home to Sheffield United, both goals coming from the spot, booking only David Norris and Alan Quinn.
Squad from: Hladky, Walton, Clarke, Donacien, Davis, Woolfenden, Burgess, Edmundson, Tuanzebe, Morsy, Taylor, Ball, Humphreys, Burns, Jackson, Chaplin, Broadhead, Harness, Aluko, Hutchinson, Hirst, Ladapo, Jackson, Scarlett.
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