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Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Prize

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Tensions mount as the division 2 title race comes to a head today. It’s been a two-horse race ever since frontrunners Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest pulled away from the pack in the early weeks of the season. Though Forest sat out alone in front for some time Boro managed to hold their nerve and not only surpassed Forest at the top of the table but build up a comfortable cushion between first and second.
Just as the title looked as if it was heading to Teesside though Boro faltered, losing first to Barnsley, then Hull, and then last week, in the shock of the season, to Sheff United. Now with just one game to go remarkably the title race has yet to be decided. Boro have it all in their own hands and just need win away at 17th place Preston, while Forest need to beat 3rd place Ipswich, and hope Boro draw or lose, or a draw will be good enough if Boro get beat.
So it would seem that fate rests in Boro’s hands. At first glance they appear to have a relatively easy task. Preston have struggled away at the foot of the table all season and are one of the league’s weakest clubs. Indeed, with just four players rated 84 or higher (the highest are at 87), an average team rating of just 80, and with players rated 72, 77, and 78 in the first team you’d think that it’s a done deal for Boro. The fact that Preston manager Katia Khizhnichenkova hasn’t signed in for two weeks also seems to suggest that Preston’s fight against relegation won’t play too much of a factor. And with a strong chance that Preston’s 4-4-1-1 formation will consequently remain unchanged suggests that it could well be a cakewalk for Boro (if only manager Jooles knew the best formation to counter a 4-4-1!).
Luckily for Forest though that’s only half the picture. Middlesbrough come into this game in bad shape, with Monday’s historic cup win against West Ham being a bruising encounter and really taking its toll on the Boro squad. They’ll be without the services of Emanuel Eboue following his red card in the cup, and if reports are to be believed Xavi, Ronaldinho, and Samuel will begin the game on the bench due to fitness concerns.
You’d think that the recent arrival of former Shaktahr left-back Roland Rat would help matters, but it’s only made it worse, with him arriving poorly out of shape, being traded for a fully fit Echiejile Elderson. Have Boro pushed themselves just one step too far? Is the possibility of a Charity Shield spot and a place in the SMFA Shield worth risking losing the title? Or will this be an easy win for Boro, perhaps with Forest also falling at high-flying Ipswich? Everything is still to play for here, in the most exciting climax to a EC7046 division 2 season ever!

Will Boro celebrate today like this, here real-life Boro manager Tony Mowbray celebrates promotion at Stamford Bridge in May 1988 having just taken Chelseas spot in division 1 in the playoff final. Bizarrely, what is a time-traveling Steve Gerrard doing there in the crowd?! Check that out on the left!

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