Middlesbrough v Sheffield United, Championship, August 7, 2009
When Boro fans were left in tears after their Premier League relegation, many would have believed that Gareth Southgate’s squad would have been picked apart and their prized-assets stripped. Amazingly, the mass exodus never materialised, leaving the Wearsiders one of the hot favourites to claim promotion from the Championship.
On the outgoings at the Riverside, little could be done to prevent Ross Turnbull from joining Chelsea, the sale of Stewart Downing was inevitable, while the departure of the Mido on loan is arguably more of a blessing than a hindrance.
Of the core of the squad the remained, fantastic Turkish forward Tuncay Sanli still remains on the club’s books and, despite the fact that Tuncay has not played any football this summer mainly as a result of a couple of niggling training injuries, the experienced international is now back in full training and is expected to lead the line for the season’s opener.
Alongside Tuncay, Afonso Alves and Jeremie Aliadiere could also be drafted into the Boro attack, but it is unlikely that new signing Leroy Lita will receive the get-go from the whistle after the striker joined Southgate’s side from Reading.
Where Boro should boast the edge though is at the back. With the safe hands of Brad Jones protecting the goal, David Wheater, Robert Hugh, Emanuel Pogatetz and Justin Hoyte have more than enough top-flight experience to prove a difficult rearguard to breach. (Boro are 11/8 to keep a clean sheet against Sheffield United.)
Life has not been as smooth-sailing for Boro’s opponents on Friday night, as Sheffield United still try to recover from last season’s disappointment of finishing third in the league and losing in the playoff final to Burnley.
Since, the Blades have lost both their fullbacks as Kyle Naughton and Kyle Walker both joined Tottenham this summer. Elsewhere, confusion still reigns over the future of goalkeeper Paddy Kenny after the custodian failed a drugs test last season, while Danny Webber and Ugo Ehiogu have both left Bramall Lane since last term.
It hasn’t been all doom and gloom though for Kevin Blackwell’s side. The arrival of striker Ched Evans from Manchester City could prove a stroke of genius, with the young Welshman possibly better equipped to deal with life in Championship than the Premier League, at this stage of his budding career. Darius Henderson is likely to partner the new recruit in the Sheffield attack.
Nevertheless, the outlook looks bleak for the Blades in the first match of the season. Boro still have a host of Premier League talent at their disposal and Southgate’s men should be too much to handle.
101predicts: Middlesbrough 2 - Sheffield United 1 (8/1)
Full match odds here.