Brentford v Middlesbrough
Play-Off Semi-Final First Leg
Live Sky Sports 1
Mark Warburton’s side made it into the play-offs on the final day of the regular season, taking advantage of Derby and Ipswich’s defeats to leapfrog that pair with a 3-0 win over relegated Wigan and finish fifth in the table – a fantastic feat for a side who were promoted from League One last term and operate on one of the tighter budgets in the division. It’s all the more impressive when you consider it was announced in January that Warburton would be leaving in the summer to be replaced by a continental set-up with a Director of Football.
A run of three draws and a defeat in April had threatened to see them miss out on a top six spot but they were rewarded for their perseverance last Saturday. Midfielder Alex Pritchard – on loan from Tottenham – was voted in the PFA Team of the Season and is the main focal point of much of their attacking intent. He also scored 12 times, behind only top goal-scorer Andre Gray (16).
They were beaten twice by Boro this season, including 1-0 at Griffin Park at the end of January, although Warburton felt they were very unlucky not to earn at least a point on that occasion. Although I’m not a believer in worrying about past results, it is worth noting that the Bees don’t have particularly fond memories of the play-offs, losing four semi-finals (1991, 1995, 2005 and 2006) and three finals (1997, 2002 and 2013).
Boro ended the regular season in rather low-key fashion with a 0-0 draw at home to Brighton. The shot-shy visitors predictably offered little in attack but Aitor Karanka’s men – minus top-scorer and PFA Championship Player of the Year Patrick Bamford who was rested with a minor niggle – weren’t any better in a game that could have gone all night without a goal.
This is only their third appearance in the play-offs: fans of a certain vintage will remember an epic 2-1 aggregate win over Chelsea in what was a two-legged final in those days – Stamford Bridge was something akin to World War Three on the afternoon of the second leg.
Away from home Boro’s form was rather mixed as the season reached its climax with the standout 1-0 win at Norwich offset by them being comfortably second-best at the top two, Bournemouth and Watford, and then the slightly farcial 4-3 loss at Fulham in their penultimate game.
However, they did finish seven points ahead of their opponents here and will feel they are the stronger side, having been involved in the four-way fight for automatic promotion while the Bees triumphed, along with Ipswich, from the quartet chasing fifth and sixth place. But as we all know the extra quality can be countered in play-offs by a side who have the momentum and nothing to lose after sneaking in on the final day.
Over/Under 1.5 goals
Over the past six seasons, the first legs of these Championship play-off semi-finals have seen 14 goals in the 12 fixtures – an average of just 1.16 per game. Cliches abound in the play-offs but there really is so much at stake that nobody wants to throw away their chance of a trip to Wembley by going too gung-ho in the first leg.
And with no away goals rule in the play-offs, there’s little incentive for the away side to commit too many men forward if they are confident in their ability to get the result at their place in the second-leg. This would all seem to suit Boro – their performance in winning 1-0 here in the league was an identikit of their success on the road for much of the season – solid in defence and taking their opportunities on the counter.
Karanka’s men put in fine defensive performance at Carrow Road to inflict Norwich’s only defeat in the last 10 games and I can see a similarly impressive rearguard effort here so I’m more than happy to be backing Under 1.5 Goals at [3.25].
Both Teams to Score
With the home side priced at [2.74] and Boro at [2.9], the market is struggling to split the pair and I think that’s just about right with the visitors’ extra quality probably cancelled out by their relatively poor recent form on the road and home advantage for the Bees. So I’m sticking with goals markets for the second recommended bet.
The Both Teams to Score market in fact which has is [1.87] that each side finds the scoresheet. With that bet only landing in one of Boro’s last five away games and my prediction above of a tight, low-scoring affair then laying both teams to score at [1.95] is the logical move here.
Back under 1.5 goals at [3.25]Lay both teams to score at [1.95]
Staked: 141 pts
Returned: 133.60 pts
P/L: – 7.40 pts
*2pts best bet if stated
1pt other recommended bets