Nottingham Forest

Nottingham Forest slideshow

The loan deal that saw Charly Musonda move from Chelsea to Celtic on an 18-month contract has been cut short because Brendan Rodgers has been unable to guarantee the Belgian midfielder sufficient game time. Telegraph Sport has reported previously that Chelsea were unhappy about the 21-year-old’s lack of action, but Rodgers said that his connection with Stamford Bridge remained amicable. “Chelsea actually came to me and to us about the possibility of taking Charly,” he said. “Since I became a manager I’ve taken six players from them on loan. Young Liam Bridcutt, a player who is at Nottingham Forest now, and Jack Cork came in and did very well. “Ryan Bertrand, I took when he was 18 to Reading and he played 44 games. Victor Moses came and played 19 games for me in the season we nearly won the title at Liverpool. He was unfortunate he couldn’t get in front of Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho but he still had a good grounding. “The next year he went out to Stoke and played 19 games, so he got the experience. Josh McEachran didn’t quite work out for a number of reasons and also Charly. So, I’ve got great relations there with the people but, of course, it’s a business for them as well and Charly needs to be playing. “On Monday I flew to London and had a meeting with Chelsea about the football and business sides. My relations there are very strong. Charly signed an 18-month loan deal with a break at the end of the season to discuss where it’s at and we both felt that, probably for what he needs at this stage of his career – and what I’d hope to give him – I can’t guarantee. Celtic are preparing for the Scottish Cup final at Hampden Park on Saturday Credit: getty images “Charly’s not 17 or 18, like Pat Roberts was when he came in. He’s older and he’s at a stage where he needs to play and play week in, week out and unfortunately, I couldn’t guarantee him that. We had a look at it and it was best for him to go back and probably pick up a loan somewhere else. “You can only play 11 players and in the position that’s probably Charly’s best, Callum McGregor’s playing brilliantly. “I won’t just bring players in on loan and think I have to play them. I bring them in because I think they can play and help us but if that spurs on other players to really jump and play, then unfortunately that’s why his game time was limited. And, of course, if I can’t then guarantee it for next year then I have to be honest as well.” Kieran Tierney, meanwhile, is at the other end of the playing scale from Musonda, with 59 appearances for Celtic and Scotland this season. He was replaced seven minutes into the second half in Sunday’s 1-0 home defeat by Aberdeen because of the toll taken on him by so many outings. Nevertheless, he will start against Motherwell in the William Hill Scottish Cup final at Hampden Park on Saturday, to be watched by scouts from Atletico Madrid, the Europa League winners and runners-up in La Liga. Kieran Tierney has received interest from a number of clubs Credit: pa “There is a dearth of good left-backs and, with Kieran’s qualities and huge potential still as a young player, that is always going to draw the eyes of top teams,” Rodgers said. “It doesn’t bother him. He is developing very well and is loving every minute. He has a really good temperament and that is getting better in big games. That’s important. Tactically, he understands the game much better. “Physically, he can cope with any league in the world. He has got stronger and faster. He’s a really exceptional young guy. He’s very stable, his home life and family are Celtic mad.” Asked if it was not inevitable that Tierney would hit a ceiling in the Scottish game, Rodgers said: “Maybe at some point, but I don’t think it’s now. At the moment he’s jumping from the youth team into the level of players we have here and he’s developing and improving. “He could move to a number of clubs if he wanted but it’s about it being the right club. An opportunity might come for him that he will have to look at and the club will look at but at the moment it’s not even a conversation. We chat and talk and he’s living the dream, really. He’s not ready to end it now.”
Charly Musonda cuts Celtic loan short with Brendan Rodgers unable to guarantee him game time
The loan deal that saw Charly Musonda move from Chelsea to Celtic on an 18-month contract has been cut short because Brendan Rodgers has been unable to guarantee the Belgian midfielder sufficient game time. Telegraph Sport has reported previously that Chelsea were unhappy about the 21-year-old’s lack of action, but Rodgers said that his connection with Stamford Bridge remained amicable. “Chelsea actually came to me and to us about the possibility of taking Charly,” he said. “Since I became a manager I’ve taken six players from them on loan. Young Liam Bridcutt, a player who is at Nottingham Forest now, and Jack Cork came in and did very well. “Ryan Bertrand, I took when he was 18 to Reading and he played 44 games. Victor Moses came and played 19 games for me in the season we nearly won the title at Liverpool. He was unfortunate he couldn’t get in front of Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho but he still had a good grounding. “The next year he went out to Stoke and played 19 games, so he got the experience. Josh McEachran didn’t quite work out for a number of reasons and also Charly. So, I’ve got great relations there with the people but, of course, it’s a business for them as well and Charly needs to be playing. “On Monday I flew to London and had a meeting with Chelsea about the football and business sides. My relations there are very strong. Charly signed an 18-month loan deal with a break at the end of the season to discuss where it’s at and we both felt that, probably for what he needs at this stage of his career – and what I’d hope to give him – I can’t guarantee. Celtic are preparing for the Scottish Cup final at Hampden Park on Saturday Credit: getty images “Charly’s not 17 or 18, like Pat Roberts was when he came in. He’s older and he’s at a stage where he needs to play and play week in, week out and unfortunately, I couldn’t guarantee him that. We had a look at it and it was best for him to go back and probably pick up a loan somewhere else. “You can only play 11 players and in the position that’s probably Charly’s best, Callum McGregor’s playing brilliantly. “I won’t just bring players in on loan and think I have to play them. I bring them in because I think they can play and help us but if that spurs on other players to really jump and play, then unfortunately that’s why his game time was limited. And, of course, if I can’t then guarantee it for next year then I have to be honest as well.” Kieran Tierney, meanwhile, is at the other end of the playing scale from Musonda, with 59 appearances for Celtic and Scotland this season. He was replaced seven minutes into the second half in Sunday’s 1-0 home defeat by Aberdeen because of the toll taken on him by so many outings. Nevertheless, he will start against Motherwell in the William Hill Scottish Cup final at Hampden Park on Saturday, to be watched by scouts from Atletico Madrid, the Europa League winners and runners-up in La Liga. Kieran Tierney has received interest from a number of clubs Credit: pa “There is a dearth of good left-backs and, with Kieran’s qualities and huge potential still as a young player, that is always going to draw the eyes of top teams,” Rodgers said. “It doesn’t bother him. He is developing very well and is loving every minute. He has a really good temperament and that is getting better in big games. That’s important. Tactically, he understands the game much better. “Physically, he can cope with any league in the world. He has got stronger and faster. He’s a really exceptional young guy. He’s very stable, his home life and family are Celtic mad.” Asked if it was not inevitable that Tierney would hit a ceiling in the Scottish game, Rodgers said: “Maybe at some point, but I don’t think it’s now. At the moment he’s jumping from the youth team into the level of players we have here and he’s developing and improving. “He could move to a number of clubs if he wanted but it’s about it being the right club. An opportunity might come for him that he will have to look at and the club will look at but at the moment it’s not even a conversation. We chat and talk and he’s living the dream, really. He’s not ready to end it now.”
The loan deal that saw Charly Musonda move from Chelsea to Celtic on an 18-month contract has been cut short because Brendan Rodgers has been unable to guarantee the Belgian midfielder sufficient game time. Telegraph Sport has reported previously that Chelsea were unhappy about the 21-year-old’s lack of action, but Rodgers said that his connection with Stamford Bridge remained amicable. “Chelsea actually came to me and to us about the possibility of taking Charly,” he said. “Since I became a manager I’ve taken six players from them on loan. Young Liam Bridcutt, a player who is at Nottingham Forest now, and Jack Cork came in and did very well. “Ryan Bertrand, I took when he was 18 to Reading and he played 44 games. Victor Moses came and played 19 games for me in the season we nearly won the title at Liverpool. He was unfortunate he couldn’t get in front of Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho but he still had a good grounding. “The next year he went out to Stoke and played 19 games, so he got the experience. Josh McEachran didn’t quite work out for a number of reasons and also Charly. So, I’ve got great relations there with the people but, of course, it’s a business for them as well and Charly needs to be playing. “On Monday I flew to London and had a meeting with Chelsea about the football and business sides. My relations there are very strong. Charly signed an 18-month loan deal with a break at the end of the season to discuss where it’s at and we both felt that, probably for what he needs at this stage of his career – and what I’d hope to give him – I can’t guarantee. Celtic are preparing for the Scottish Cup final at Hampden Park on Saturday Credit: getty images “Charly’s not 17 or 18, like Pat Roberts was when he came in. He’s older and he’s at a stage where he needs to play and play week in, week out and unfortunately, I couldn’t guarantee him that. We had a look at it and it was best for him to go back and probably pick up a loan somewhere else. “You can only play 11 players and in the position that’s probably Charly’s best, Callum McGregor’s playing brilliantly. “I won’t just bring players in on loan and think I have to play them. I bring them in because I think they can play and help us but if that spurs on other players to really jump and play, then unfortunately that’s why his game time was limited. And, of course, if I can’t then guarantee it for next year then I have to be honest as well.” Kieran Tierney, meanwhile, is at the other end of the playing scale from Musonda, with 59 appearances for Celtic and Scotland this season. He was replaced seven minutes into the second half in Sunday’s 1-0 home defeat by Aberdeen because of the toll taken on him by so many outings. Nevertheless, he will start against Motherwell in the William Hill Scottish Cup final at Hampden Park on Saturday, to be watched by scouts from Atletico Madrid, the Europa League winners and runners-up in La Liga. Kieran Tierney has received interest from a number of clubs Credit: pa “There is a dearth of good left-backs and, with Kieran’s qualities and huge potential still as a young player, that is always going to draw the eyes of top teams,” Rodgers said. “It doesn’t bother him. He is developing very well and is loving every minute. He has a really good temperament and that is getting better in big games. That’s important. Tactically, he understands the game much better. “Physically, he can cope with any league in the world. He has got stronger and faster. He’s a really exceptional young guy. He’s very stable, his home life and family are Celtic mad.” Asked if it was not inevitable that Tierney would hit a ceiling in the Scottish game, Rodgers said: “Maybe at some point, but I don’t think it’s now. At the moment he’s jumping from the youth team into the level of players we have here and he’s developing and improving. “He could move to a number of clubs if he wanted but it’s about it being the right club. An opportunity might come for him that he will have to look at and the club will look at but at the moment it’s not even a conversation. We chat and talk and he’s living the dream, really. He’s not ready to end it now.”
Charly Musonda cuts Celtic loan short with Brendan Rodgers unable to guarantee him game time
The loan deal that saw Charly Musonda move from Chelsea to Celtic on an 18-month contract has been cut short because Brendan Rodgers has been unable to guarantee the Belgian midfielder sufficient game time. Telegraph Sport has reported previously that Chelsea were unhappy about the 21-year-old’s lack of action, but Rodgers said that his connection with Stamford Bridge remained amicable. “Chelsea actually came to me and to us about the possibility of taking Charly,” he said. “Since I became a manager I’ve taken six players from them on loan. Young Liam Bridcutt, a player who is at Nottingham Forest now, and Jack Cork came in and did very well. “Ryan Bertrand, I took when he was 18 to Reading and he played 44 games. Victor Moses came and played 19 games for me in the season we nearly won the title at Liverpool. He was unfortunate he couldn’t get in front of Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho but he still had a good grounding. “The next year he went out to Stoke and played 19 games, so he got the experience. Josh McEachran didn’t quite work out for a number of reasons and also Charly. So, I’ve got great relations there with the people but, of course, it’s a business for them as well and Charly needs to be playing. “On Monday I flew to London and had a meeting with Chelsea about the football and business sides. My relations there are very strong. Charly signed an 18-month loan deal with a break at the end of the season to discuss where it’s at and we both felt that, probably for what he needs at this stage of his career – and what I’d hope to give him – I can’t guarantee. Celtic are preparing for the Scottish Cup final at Hampden Park on Saturday Credit: getty images “Charly’s not 17 or 18, like Pat Roberts was when he came in. He’s older and he’s at a stage where he needs to play and play week in, week out and unfortunately, I couldn’t guarantee him that. We had a look at it and it was best for him to go back and probably pick up a loan somewhere else. “You can only play 11 players and in the position that’s probably Charly’s best, Callum McGregor’s playing brilliantly. “I won’t just bring players in on loan and think I have to play them. I bring them in because I think they can play and help us but if that spurs on other players to really jump and play, then unfortunately that’s why his game time was limited. And, of course, if I can’t then guarantee it for next year then I have to be honest as well.” Kieran Tierney, meanwhile, is at the other end of the playing scale from Musonda, with 59 appearances for Celtic and Scotland this season. He was replaced seven minutes into the second half in Sunday’s 1-0 home defeat by Aberdeen because of the toll taken on him by so many outings. Nevertheless, he will start against Motherwell in the William Hill Scottish Cup final at Hampden Park on Saturday, to be watched by scouts from Atletico Madrid, the Europa League winners and runners-up in La Liga. Kieran Tierney has received interest from a number of clubs Credit: pa “There is a dearth of good left-backs and, with Kieran’s qualities and huge potential still as a young player, that is always going to draw the eyes of top teams,” Rodgers said. “It doesn’t bother him. He is developing very well and is loving every minute. He has a really good temperament and that is getting better in big games. That’s important. Tactically, he understands the game much better. “Physically, he can cope with any league in the world. He has got stronger and faster. He’s a really exceptional young guy. He’s very stable, his home life and family are Celtic mad.” Asked if it was not inevitable that Tierney would hit a ceiling in the Scottish game, Rodgers said: “Maybe at some point, but I don’t think it’s now. At the moment he’s jumping from the youth team into the level of players we have here and he’s developing and improving. “He could move to a number of clubs if he wanted but it’s about it being the right club. An opportunity might come for him that he will have to look at and the club will look at but at the moment it’s not even a conversation. We chat and talk and he’s living the dream, really. He’s not ready to end it now.”
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
Mile Jedinak's header gives Aston Villa slender play-off advantage over Middlesbrough
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
Mile Jedinak's header gives Aston Villa slender play-off advantage over Middlesbrough
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
Mile Jedinak's header gives Aston Villa slender play-off advantage over Middlesbrough
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
Mile Jedinak's header gives Aston Villa slender play-off advantage over Middlesbrough
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
Mile Jedinak's header gives Aston Villa slender play-off advantage over Middlesbrough
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
Mile Jedinak's header gives Aston Villa slender play-off advantage over Middlesbrough
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
Mile Jedinak's header gives Aston Villa slender play-off advantage over Middlesbrough
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
Mile Jedinak's header gives Aston Villa slender play-off advantage over Middlesbrough
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
Mile Jedinak's header gives Aston Villa slender play-off advantage over Middlesbrough
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
Mile Jedinak's header gives Aston Villa slender play-off advantage over Middlesbrough
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
Mile Jedinak's header gives Aston Villa slender play-off advantage over Middlesbrough
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
Mile Jedinak's header gives Aston Villa slender play-off advantage over Middlesbrough
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
Mile Jedinak's header gives Aston Villa slender play-off advantage over Middlesbrough
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
Mile Jedinak's header gives Aston Villa slender play-off advantage over Middlesbrough
It says everything about the anguish in Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce’s life that the tension and the pressure of a Championship play-off semi-final was a welcome break from the pain caused by the death of both his parents. Of course, there are more important things in life than football, but perhaps no better distraction from its trials and tribulations. It has been a traumatic year for Bruce, whose mother Sheenagh died last week, just 88 days after his father Joe passed away, but he was adamant he had not lost any of his focus in the build-up to this season defining encounter against Middlesbrough. Not everyone was convinced given the obvious emotional toll it has taken on him, yet his players, in and out of form all season, delivered when he needed it most, securing a slender, but crucial advantage heading into the home leg on Tuesday night thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header. Villa were neither expansive nor particularly exciting, but they neutralised Middlesbrough, suffocating their main offensive threat, Adama Traore, with Alan Hutton following him from left flank to right, mimicking his shadow rather than his marker. No manager has been promoted to the Premier League more times than Bruce Credit: Getty images He was not alone. The 34-year-old former Scotland international was just one of the vastly experienced players assembled by Bruce who stood up and made sure they were counted. “Too many people couldn’t handle the expectation when I arrived,” said Bruce. “Overall to come here, keep a clean sheet and win, I thought we were excellent. We know the Championship is riddled with strange things, but we’ve given ourselves a small lead. “I wanted to get experienced players through the door, people who had played at the top level because when you are in a play-off semi-final, you want players who are used to the big occasions. “The experienced players handle playing for a big club under pressure. I thought they were terrific. But it’s only half time and Boro will be dangerous, we know that. It’s not over by a long way.” These teams had looked evenly matched on paper, but it was in the mind where Villa showed greater strength. Middlesbrough, in front of their own supporters, were tense and frenetic. The occasion got the better of them. Everything was rushed and hurried, their decision-making scrambled throughout. They played with emotion rather than thought. Adama Traore was Middlesbrough's greatest threat but Villa dealt with him well Credit: Reuters Villa were different, far more composed and therefore clinical in everything they did. There was something about the way the visitors held themselves, striding around the pitch, confident; assured. The partisan atmosphere focused their minds rather than unnerved them. They exuded experience. Boro may have had the first chance, a long range shot from Muhamed Besic which had goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, looking nervously over his shoulder as it dipped narrowly over the bar. But Villa were slick, streetwise and tough, taking the lead with a brilliantly worked set piece and then holding on to it with a degree of ease that should concern Boro manager Tony Pulis Lewis Grabban was the decoy, pulling Ben Gibson away from the back post when Jack Grealish’s swung in the corner to the near one. Gibson fell for it, following Grabban so when Jedinak sent a glancing header goalwards there was nobody on the line to clear it. Villa could well have doubled their lead before the break, only a magnificent save from Darren Randolph, tipping the ball on to the post, kept out Robert Snodgrass’ curling effort. Boro had only won one game against a top six team this season and although they began to offer a threat of their own going forward, they wasted the half chances that came their way. The best of them fell to Britt Assombalonga, whose header, from six yards out from a Traore cross, was straight at Johnstone. Jedinak's first-half header was the difference Credit: Getty images The former Nottingham Forest striker also blazed high and wide after taking an excellent pass from Jonny Howson down on his chest. It summed up his team’s first 45 minutes, with a little more composure, he would have at least hit the target. The only other cause for excitement for the home supporters was when Villa’s Alan Hutton almost headed a corner into his own net. The problem for Pulis was that he did not want to chase too hard. Whatever the result after 90 minutes, it was only half time in the contest. He will be well aware of the fact that Villa’s players have sometimes struggled with the weight of expectation in front of their own fans. If anything, Boro were more methodical after half time, more patient, but they struggled to break Villa’s well-drilled backline. At the age of 37, John Terry no longer moves like he once did, but he can still organise a rearguard action and Johnstone did not have a save to make, until eight minutes to go, when he tipped away a header from his own player, substitute Birkir Bjarnason. “It is advantage Villa, you cannot deny that,” said Pulis. “But we are still in this game and it will be a wonderful game on Tuesday. They will be favourites, but we have played well away from home and we will give it everything.” 7:10PM Steve Bruce's post-match thoughts. "The second half was very difficult but we've got a clean sheet and an advantage. We'll take that. "It's a small advantage. We all know how unpredictable the Championship can be." 7:09PM Full time! Aston Villa get a just-about-deserved and invaluable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough to take back home for Tuesday's second leg. 7:07PM 90 mins +5 Terry is up on his feet. There isn't long left now. 7:06PM 90 mins +3 Bamford lays off well for Fabio in the box but his shot is charged down and deflected wide. Terry goes down holding his head from the resulting corner. The clock ticks... 7:04PM 90 mins +2 Downing shoot with his right foot from 25 yards. It flies well over the bar. 7:03PM 90 mins Five minutes added on. A huge roar goes up around the Riverside. 7:02PM 89 mins Downing and Fabio combine well on the right, the former dinking a nice cross in towards Bamford, but he can only flick the ball on. It just will not fall for Friend at the back post, but he volleys at goal anyway, with the ball up at waist height and, what a surprise it goes waaaaay over the bar. 7:01PM 87 mins Elmohamady looks like he has pulled his hamstring, signalling quickly to the bench after a race with Fabio. He falls to the floor and needs treatment... replaced shortly afterwards by Glenn Whelan. Bjanarson goes to left-back. 6:57PM 84 mins Good ball from Downing out to Friend on the left, and he crosses to the back stick, where Fabio chests and volleys at goal, forcing a save from Johnstone. Besic follows up with a shot from the edge of the box but it flies well wide. 6:55PM 82 mins Traore lofts a corner into the box, which is nodded down and Fabio forces a decent save from Johnstone. The keeper then punches the resulting corner clear. 6:53PM 80 mins 10 minutes to go. Middlesbrough need a goal to take to Villa Park. Birkir Bjarnason, the Iceland midefielder, replaces Grabban for Aston Villa. Grealish will move out to the left. Grabban had a quiet afternoon Credit: PA 6:49PM 77 mins Downing's free-kick drops and hits Gibson on the knee, ricocheting into Johnstone's arms. 6:48PM 75 mins Snodgrass is booked after he takes Friend down on the left. Free-kick in a dangerous position for Boro, who do indeed bring Bamford on for Assombalonga. 6:47PM 74 mins Assombalonga's touch lets him down as Boro build on the left, and Pulis turns to call Patrick Bamford back from his warm-up. Villa go up the other end and Grabban wastes a decent chance. 6:43PM 70 mins Jack Grealish has been the best player on the pitch so far. Brilliant performance from such a young player. Plenty of time for that to change, though... Credit: Getty images Villa make their first sub of the game. Jonathan Kodjia replaces Albert Adomah who, having formerly played for Boro, gets a great reception. I'm not entirely sure what Lewis Grabban has done today to deserve to stay on, but I suppose that's why Steve Bruce is a manager and I'm writing about him. 6:40PM 66 mins Huge, huge opportunity for Boro as Besic and Howson play a little one-two in midfield, before Besic slides Fabio in on the right. He has time to set himself and roll a cross into Assombalonga's path, but he plays it behind the striker and the chance goes. What a waste. 6:37PM 64 mins Ayala has lasted just a matter of minutes before he is forced off. Former Man Utd full-back Fabio replaces him. Shotton goes to centre-back, Fabio right-back. 6:34PM 60 mins Traore is let off the hook as he loses the ball trying to dribble his way out of defence, as his team-mates slow the attack down and Traore is able to charge down a Grabban effort. The problem is it looks as though Ayala has picked up a knock in stopping the initial attack by tackling Grealish. He gets to his feet gingerly and looks very uncomfortable indeed, but should be okay to come back on. 6:29PM 56 mins Nobody wants to sit next to Roy Keane today. The Republic of Ireland assistant manager is at the Riverside Stadium 6:28PM 54 mins Downing wins a corner and his cross isn't dealt with too convincingly by Johnstone, whose punch drops on the edge of the area. Play is spread back out to the right where Besic overlaps and whips a low ball in, but Shotton can't turn it goalwards. 6:25PM 52 mins This game is opening up a little but both teams are just lacking quality in their final ball at the moment. Assombalonga loses patience and tries shooting from distance, but scuffs his shot horribly and it trickles wide. 6:21PM 49 mins Ben Gibson lunges in late on Jedinak and deservedly gets a yellow card. Slow start to this half. 6:18PM Second half Boro get the second period started. 6:09PM The Traore vs Grealish show Successful dribbles: Traore 9 Grealish 6 Everyone else 6 6:06PM Half time Mile Jedinak's brilliant header is the difference at the break and Villa deserve their lead. Tony Pulis will be absolutely fuming about how his team have conceded but it is now up to him to change the path of this game. Jedinak's goal is the difference at the break Credit: Getty images Boro have relied heavily on the individuality of Adama Traore, and the fact he occupies two Villa players every time he gets the ball has a huge effect, but Boro's best chances have come when Howson and Assombalonga combine. That is the route back into this game if you ask me. 6:02PM 45 mins +1 George Friend earns a yellow card for jumping into Jedinak under a high ball. 6:01PM 45 mins Traore dances past a few (more) challenges and shoots at goal but he's off balance and can't get it on target. 6:01PM 44 mins Off the post! Snodgrass bends one from an inside-right position and it looks for all the world like it's going in. Randolph scrambles across and gets a fingertip to it, though, and touches it onto the post. What a save that was. 5:56PM 39 mins What a run from Grealish, who goes the length of the pitch, riding two or three challenges where another player might well have gone down. He makes it all the way into the Boro box but his shot is charged down by Ayala. Ayala then has a header fairly easily saved from a corner at the other end. 5:54PM 37 mins What a chance for Assombalonga, as he flicks Traore's inswnging cross towards goal but it isn't far enough away from Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal, and he gets down low to save well. Three chances in quick succession for Assombalonga. I wonder how many more he'll get. 5:51PM 36 mins Clayton blazes over from 25 yards. A tad over-ambitious. 5:49PM 33 mins A second chance in quick succession for Assombalonga. Howson again finds his run after he pulls out to the left, and the forward stands Chester up, pulls the ball out onto his left and strikes at goal but he can only fire into the side netting. That was a better chance, but Boro will be pleased he is getting into good positions. 5:48PM 32 mins Villa go up the other end with Snodgrass meeting Adomah's cross but he can't keep his header down. 5:47PM 31 mins Assombalonga gets his first chance of the game, as Howson spots his run between Elmohamady and Chester and dinks a ball perfectly onto his chest. The striker takes it down well but half-volleys over the bar from close range. Tough chance but he arguably should score. 5:45PM 29 mins A Boro corner is dug out from under his own crossbar by Hutton and he only narrowly avoids scoring an own goal. The next Boro corner comes to nothing. 5:44PM 27 mins Uh oh. John Terry is limping. 5:44PM 25 mins Traore is very much the main man for Boro. They need to get him into some space. So far he has had very little. Traore is being shut down very quickly at the moment Credit: PA 5:40PM 22 mins Terry sells Grealish short with a bit of a hospital pass and Traore is just too slow to the ball, catching the Villa man. The free-kick is lofted into the box and flicked towards goal. It looks like a routine catch for Randolph but he collides with his post and then lands over the byline, conceding a corner out of nothing. Jedinak wins the header again, nodding down for Adomah, but he can't direct his shot on target. 5:36PM 20 mins Tony Pulis is not a happy man on the touchline. Credit: PA 5:35PM 18 mins Boro respond with a George Friend long throw into the box, but that comes to nothing. 5:33PM Jedinak puts Villa ahead Tony Pulis won't be happy at all - Boro have conceded from the first corner they have faced, after Mile Jedinak gets across his man at the front post to meet Grealish's inviting cross and glance a perfectly-placed header into the bottom corner at the far post. Unstoppable, that. Game on. Jedinak heads home 5:31PM GOOOOOOALL! Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa (Jedinak) 5:30PM 13 mins Besic is involved in everything at the moment. He tries to wriggle away from a challenge but is tackled, and when Grealish tries to break he is stopped in his tracks by Howson. Grealish isn't happy and wants a card. But it is Hourihane that is booked for an earlier stray arm in an aerial battle with Howson, after which an advantage had been played. 5:27PM 10 mins Big tackles are flying in all over the shop and this game is being played at breakneck speed. We're only 10 minutes in so I can't see it lasting much longer. Shotton launches his first long throw of the game into the box, which is headed clear only as far as Mo Besic, who chests and volleys high and wide of the target. 5:23PM 7 mins Some of the calmest defending you'll ever see from the very unglamourous Ryan Shotton, who passes back to Randolph under pressure from a cross inside his own six-yard box. Lovely stuff. 5:21PM 6 mins Chants of "John Terry, he's won more than you" ring out from the away fans. Not sure Villa can really gloat about Chelsea's triumphs, but they're doing it anyway. Talking of a fiery start, Howson catches Grealish late. That won't be the last time he's fouled today. 5:18PM 3 mins It's a fiery start at the Riverside, where Conor Hourihane has already but in a strong tackle and Adama Traore has been shut down quickly by two Villa players. Traore then skips away from a challenge and feeds Howson who wins a corner, but that comes to nothing. 5:16PM Aston Villa get us started Dressed to impress in all black, Villa get things under way. 5:14PM T-minus one minute And the Riverside Stadium is bouncing. 5:06PM The managers talk Steve Bruce: "People hit form and drop out of form. The last couple of weeks have allowed me to pick a fresh team today. The players playing today are predominantly those who got us here so it's only fair they play. "Tony [Pulis] has sprinkled a little bit of his magic. They are the in-form team in the league but we know what to expect." Tony Pulis is confident Credit: Getty images Tony Pulis: "We've got to approach this in the right manner and play our game. "Does our record against the top teams matter? [Boro have won only once against a top six side all season] We've played Derby, Bristol City and Millwall recently and beaten them all. They're all up there." 4:54PM Predicting the play-off winner Earlier this week I did a bit of research into past play-off winners, to try and ascertain how much league position, form going into the play-offs and managerial pedigree makes a difference to the outcome. You can see what I found out here. 4:41PM How will this play out? Well, Fulham had unquestionably gone into their play-off against Derby as favourites last night, but they went and lost 1-0 at Pride Park, and given how much of a lottery the play-offs always seem to be, today is anybody's guess. I'd predict that Tony Pulis' Boro will go into the game desperate to keep a clean sheet at home and that could make for a cagey game. But that said, there is plenty of attacking quality in both teams - no more so than in Adam Traore and Jack Grealish - and they will want to impress on the big stage. Jack Grealish will be key over these two legs Credit: Getty images Here's to hoping those two are allowed to express themselves and we get an exciting game as a result! 4:32PM Club legends getting involved on Twitter I just wonna say.... COME ON THE VILLA! @AVFCOfficial Let’s get back to where you belong!! Good luck chaps! Good luck Brucie!#UTVpic.twitter.com/FGyRDAYTqk— Dion Dublin (@DionDublinsDube) May 12, 2018 All the best to @Boro this afternoon ��be nice to see u in the premier league again— Julio Arca (@julioarcaOK) May 12, 2018 4:20PM The teams are in Hello and welcome as we build up to the second of the two Championship play-off semi-finals. After Fulham were felled by Derby against the odds last night, who knows what to expect today. Aston Villa finished higher in the league but Boro manager Tony Pulis is a master of not losing important matches, and he will not make this easy for his opponents. Here are the teams, with kick off an hour away: Middlesbrough Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Besic, Howson; Traore, Downing, Assombalonga Aston Villa Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Snodgrass, Hourihane, Jedinak, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
Huddersfield's battling draw with Chelsea completed a remarkable season in which every team that won promotion to English football's top leagues remain in the division. David Wagner's side earned a vital point at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night to guarantee their Premier League safety for another season. The result meant that Huddersfield joined fellow promoted sides Brighton and Newcastle in safely avoiding a return the Championship as Stoke, West Brom and - barring a miracle - Swansea all dropped out of the top flight. For the first time since the 2001-02 season, when Fulham, Blackburn and Bolton defied the odds, every single team that earned promotion to one of English football's top four leagues avoided relegation. Alan Alger, PR manager at bookmakers Betway, said the odds on such an outcome would have been bigger than Leicester City's Premier League title triumph in 2016. Stoke City lost to Crystal Palace last weekend to end their 10-year stay in the Premier League Credit: Getty Images In the Championship, Burton Albion and Barnsley were relegated on a dramatic final day after Sunderland's fate had been sealed a week earlier. Below the top-flight, Championship new-boys Sheffield United and Millwall both enjoyed top-half finishes while Bolton Wanderers escaped the drop on the final day. In League One, Portsmouth, Plymouth Argyle, Doncaster Rovers, Blackpool all stayed well clear of the bottom four as Bury, MK Dons, Northampton Town, and Oldham Athletic were relegated to the fourth tier. League Two's Forest Green narrowly avoided an immediate return to the Vanarama National League while fellow promoted side Lincoln enjoyed a seventh-place finish, booking their place in the play-offs. Bolton Wanderers came from behind to beat Nottingham Forest on the final day and avoid an instant return to League One Credit: Getty Images In fact, the trend extends beyond the Football League, with Maidenhead United, Ebbsfleet United, Halifax Town and Fylde all securing safety after earning promotion to National League One last season. Huddersfield manager David Wagner was last night quick to praise his players for the "incredible achievement" of defying Premier League relegation. “This is an absolute over-achievement,” said Wagner. Huddersfield came up via the Championship play-offs Credit: PA “It's a bigger achievement than the promotion last season. Last year we were predicted to be relegated and we got promoted. This season we were predicted to be a team relegated by miles and I understand it. “We work under circumstances which are not even Championship circumstances. But part of our DNA, the Huddersfield Town DNA, is to try it. "To have passion, desire... how big you are doesn't count. It's about trying everything. We are humble. We are ambitious, too. We search a chance in every game. Today we were chance-less, more or less. It's an incredible achievement for us. It feels like another trophy.” Promoted teams avoid relegation | English football's top five leagues
Year of the underdog: Every single promoted team in English football's top four divisions avoids relegation
Huddersfield's battling draw with Chelsea completed a remarkable season in which every team that won promotion to English football's top leagues remain in the division. David Wagner's side earned a vital point at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night to guarantee their Premier League safety for another season. The result meant that Huddersfield joined fellow promoted sides Brighton and Newcastle in safely avoiding a return the Championship as Stoke, West Brom and - barring a miracle - Swansea all dropped out of the top flight. For the first time since the 2001-02 season, when Fulham, Blackburn and Bolton defied the odds, every single team that earned promotion to one of English football's top four leagues avoided relegation. Alan Alger, PR manager at bookmakers Betway, said the odds on such an outcome would have been bigger than Leicester City's Premier League title triumph in 2016. Stoke City lost to Crystal Palace last weekend to end their 10-year stay in the Premier League Credit: Getty Images In the Championship, Burton Albion and Barnsley were relegated on a dramatic final day after Sunderland's fate had been sealed a week earlier. Below the top-flight, Championship new-boys Sheffield United and Millwall both enjoyed top-half finishes while Bolton Wanderers escaped the drop on the final day. In League One, Portsmouth, Plymouth Argyle, Doncaster Rovers, Blackpool all stayed well clear of the bottom four as Bury, MK Dons, Northampton Town, and Oldham Athletic were relegated to the fourth tier. League Two's Forest Green narrowly avoided an immediate return to the Vanarama National League while fellow promoted side Lincoln enjoyed a seventh-place finish, booking their place in the play-offs. Bolton Wanderers came from behind to beat Nottingham Forest on the final day and avoid an instant return to League One Credit: Getty Images In fact, the trend extends beyond the Football League, with Maidenhead United, Ebbsfleet United, Halifax Town and Fylde all securing safety after earning promotion to National League One last season. Huddersfield manager David Wagner was last night quick to praise his players for the "incredible achievement" of defying Premier League relegation. “This is an absolute over-achievement,” said Wagner. Huddersfield came up via the Championship play-offs Credit: PA “It's a bigger achievement than the promotion last season. Last year we were predicted to be relegated and we got promoted. This season we were predicted to be a team relegated by miles and I understand it. “We work under circumstances which are not even Championship circumstances. But part of our DNA, the Huddersfield Town DNA, is to try it. "To have passion, desire... how big you are doesn't count. It's about trying everything. We are humble. We are ambitious, too. We search a chance in every game. Today we were chance-less, more or less. It's an incredible achievement for us. It feels like another trophy.” Promoted teams avoid relegation | English football's top five leagues
Huddersfield's battling draw with Chelsea completed a remarkable season in which every team that won promotion to English football's top leagues remain in the division. David Wagner's side earned a vital point at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night to guarantee their Premier League safety for another season. The result meant that Huddersfield joined fellow promoted sides Brighton and Newcastle in safely avoiding a return the Championship as Stoke, West Brom and - barring a miracle - Swansea all dropped out of the top flight. For the first time since the 2001-02 season, when Fulham, Blackburn and Bolton defied the odds, every single team that earned promotion to one of English football's top four leagues avoided relegation. Alan Alger, PR manager at bookmakers Betway, said the odds on such an outcome would have been bigger than Leicester City's Premier League title triumph in 2016. Stoke City lost to Crystal Palace last weekend to end their 10-year stay in the Premier League Credit: Getty Images In the Championship, Burton Albion and Barnsley were relegated on a dramatic final day after Sunderland's fate had been sealed a week earlier. Below the top-flight, Championship new-boys Sheffield United and Millwall both enjoyed top-half finishes while Bolton Wanderers escaped the drop on the final day. In League One, Portsmouth, Plymouth Argyle, Doncaster Rovers, Blackpool all stayed well clear of the bottom four as Bury, MK Dons, Northampton Town, and Oldham Athletic were relegated to the fourth tier. League Two's Forest Green narrowly avoided an immediate return to the Vanarama National League while fellow promoted side Lincoln enjoyed a seventh-place finish, booking their place in the play-offs. Bolton Wanderers came from behind to beat Nottingham Forest on the final day and avoid an instant return to League One Credit: Getty Images In fact, the trend extends beyond the Football League, with Maidenhead United, Ebbsfleet United, Halifax Town and Fylde all securing safety after earning promotion to National League One last season. Huddersfield manager David Wagner was last night quick to praise his players for the "incredible achievement" of defying Premier League relegation. “This is an absolute over-achievement,” said Wagner. Huddersfield came up via the Championship play-offs Credit: PA “It's a bigger achievement than the promotion last season. Last year we were predicted to be relegated and we got promoted. This season we were predicted to be a team relegated by miles and I understand it. “We work under circumstances which are not even Championship circumstances. But part of our DNA, the Huddersfield Town DNA, is to try it. "To have passion, desire... how big you are doesn't count. It's about trying everything. We are humble. We are ambitious, too. We search a chance in every game. Today we were chance-less, more or less. It's an incredible achievement for us. It feels like another trophy.” Promoted teams avoid relegation | English football's top five leagues
Year of the underdog: Every single promoted team in English football's top four divisions avoids relegation
Huddersfield's battling draw with Chelsea completed a remarkable season in which every team that won promotion to English football's top leagues remain in the division. David Wagner's side earned a vital point at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night to guarantee their Premier League safety for another season. The result meant that Huddersfield joined fellow promoted sides Brighton and Newcastle in safely avoiding a return the Championship as Stoke, West Brom and - barring a miracle - Swansea all dropped out of the top flight. For the first time since the 2001-02 season, when Fulham, Blackburn and Bolton defied the odds, every single team that earned promotion to one of English football's top four leagues avoided relegation. Alan Alger, PR manager at bookmakers Betway, said the odds on such an outcome would have been bigger than Leicester City's Premier League title triumph in 2016. Stoke City lost to Crystal Palace last weekend to end their 10-year stay in the Premier League Credit: Getty Images In the Championship, Burton Albion and Barnsley were relegated on a dramatic final day after Sunderland's fate had been sealed a week earlier. Below the top-flight, Championship new-boys Sheffield United and Millwall both enjoyed top-half finishes while Bolton Wanderers escaped the drop on the final day. In League One, Portsmouth, Plymouth Argyle, Doncaster Rovers, Blackpool all stayed well clear of the bottom four as Bury, MK Dons, Northampton Town, and Oldham Athletic were relegated to the fourth tier. League Two's Forest Green narrowly avoided an immediate return to the Vanarama National League while fellow promoted side Lincoln enjoyed a seventh-place finish, booking their place in the play-offs. Bolton Wanderers came from behind to beat Nottingham Forest on the final day and avoid an instant return to League One Credit: Getty Images In fact, the trend extends beyond the Football League, with Maidenhead United, Ebbsfleet United, Halifax Town and Fylde all securing safety after earning promotion to National League One last season. Huddersfield manager David Wagner was last night quick to praise his players for the "incredible achievement" of defying Premier League relegation. “This is an absolute over-achievement,” said Wagner. Huddersfield came up via the Championship play-offs Credit: PA “It's a bigger achievement than the promotion last season. Last year we were predicted to be relegated and we got promoted. This season we were predicted to be a team relegated by miles and I understand it. “We work under circumstances which are not even Championship circumstances. But part of our DNA, the Huddersfield Town DNA, is to try it. "To have passion, desire... how big you are doesn't count. It's about trying everything. We are humble. We are ambitious, too. We search a chance in every game. Today we were chance-less, more or less. It's an incredible achievement for us. It feels like another trophy.” Promoted teams avoid relegation | English football's top five leagues
Huddersfield's battling draw with Chelsea completed a remarkable season in which every team that won promotion to English football's top leagues remain in the division. David Wagner's side earned a vital point at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night to guarantee their Premier League safety for another season. The result meant that Huddersfield joined fellow promoted sides Brighton and Newcastle in safely avoiding a return the Championship as Stoke, West Brom and - barring a miracle - Swansea all dropped out of the top flight. For the first time since the 2001-02 season, when Fulham, Blackburn and Bolton defied the odds, every single team that earned promotion to one of English football's top four leagues avoided relegation. Alan Alger, PR manager at bookmakers Betway, said the odds on such an outcome would have been bigger than Leicester City's Premier League title triumph in 2016. Stoke City lost to Crystal Palace last weekend to end their 10-year stay in the Premier League Credit: Getty Images In the Championship, Burton Albion and Barnsley were relegated on a dramatic final day after Sunderland's fate had been sealed a week earlier. Below the top-flight, Championship new-boys Sheffield United and Millwall both enjoyed top-half finishes while Bolton Wanderers escaped the drop on the final day. In League One, Portsmouth, Plymouth Argyle, Doncaster Rovers, Blackpool all stayed well clear of the bottom four as Bury, MK Dons, Northampton Town, and Oldham Athletic were relegated to the fourth tier. League Two's Forest Green narrowly avoided an immediate return to the Vanarama National League while fellow promoted side Lincoln enjoyed a seventh-place finish, booking their place in the play-offs. Bolton Wanderers came from behind to beat Nottingham Forest on the final day and avoid an instant return to League One Credit: Getty Images In fact, the trend extends beyond the Football League, with Maidenhead United, Ebbsfleet United, Halifax Town and Fylde all securing safety after earning promotion to National League One last season. Huddersfield manager David Wagner was last night quick to praise his players for the "incredible achievement" of defying Premier League relegation. “This is an absolute over-achievement,” said Wagner. Huddersfield came up via the Championship play-offs Credit: PA “It's a bigger achievement than the promotion last season. Last year we were predicted to be relegated and we got promoted. This season we were predicted to be a team relegated by miles and I understand it. “We work under circumstances which are not even Championship circumstances. But part of our DNA, the Huddersfield Town DNA, is to try it. "To have passion, desire... how big you are doesn't count. It's about trying everything. We are humble. We are ambitious, too. We search a chance in every game. Today we were chance-less, more or less. It's an incredible achievement for us. It feels like another trophy.” Promoted teams avoid relegation | English football's top five leagues
Year of the underdog: Every single promoted team in English football's top four divisions avoids relegation
Huddersfield's battling draw with Chelsea completed a remarkable season in which every team that won promotion to English football's top leagues remain in the division. David Wagner's side earned a vital point at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night to guarantee their Premier League safety for another season. The result meant that Huddersfield joined fellow promoted sides Brighton and Newcastle in safely avoiding a return the Championship as Stoke, West Brom and - barring a miracle - Swansea all dropped out of the top flight. For the first time since the 2001-02 season, when Fulham, Blackburn and Bolton defied the odds, every single team that earned promotion to one of English football's top four leagues avoided relegation. Alan Alger, PR manager at bookmakers Betway, said the odds on such an outcome would have been bigger than Leicester City's Premier League title triumph in 2016. Stoke City lost to Crystal Palace last weekend to end their 10-year stay in the Premier League Credit: Getty Images In the Championship, Burton Albion and Barnsley were relegated on a dramatic final day after Sunderland's fate had been sealed a week earlier. Below the top-flight, Championship new-boys Sheffield United and Millwall both enjoyed top-half finishes while Bolton Wanderers escaped the drop on the final day. In League One, Portsmouth, Plymouth Argyle, Doncaster Rovers, Blackpool all stayed well clear of the bottom four as Bury, MK Dons, Northampton Town, and Oldham Athletic were relegated to the fourth tier. League Two's Forest Green narrowly avoided an immediate return to the Vanarama National League while fellow promoted side Lincoln enjoyed a seventh-place finish, booking their place in the play-offs. Bolton Wanderers came from behind to beat Nottingham Forest on the final day and avoid an instant return to League One Credit: Getty Images In fact, the trend extends beyond the Football League, with Maidenhead United, Ebbsfleet United, Halifax Town and Fylde all securing safety after earning promotion to National League One last season. Huddersfield manager David Wagner was last night quick to praise his players for the "incredible achievement" of defying Premier League relegation. “This is an absolute over-achievement,” said Wagner. Huddersfield came up via the Championship play-offs Credit: PA “It's a bigger achievement than the promotion last season. Last year we were predicted to be relegated and we got promoted. This season we were predicted to be a team relegated by miles and I understand it. “We work under circumstances which are not even Championship circumstances. But part of our DNA, the Huddersfield Town DNA, is to try it. "To have passion, desire... how big you are doesn't count. It's about trying everything. We are humble. We are ambitious, too. We search a chance in every game. Today we were chance-less, more or less. It's an incredible achievement for us. It feels like another trophy.” Promoted teams avoid relegation | English football's top five leagues
Huddersfield's battling draw with Chelsea completed a remarkable season in which every team that won promotion to English football's top leagues remain in the division. David Wagner's side earned a vital point at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night to guarantee their Premier League safety for another season. The result meant that Huddersfield joined fellow promoted sides Brighton and Newcastle in safely avoiding a return the Championship as Stoke, West Brom and - barring a miracle - Swansea all dropped out of the top flight. For the first time since the 2001-02 season, when Fulham, Blackburn and Bolton defied the odds, every single team that earned promotion to one of English football's top four leagues avoided relegation. Alan Alger, PR manager at bookmakers Betway, said the odds on such an outcome would have been bigger than Leicester City's Premier League title triumph in 2016. Stoke City lost to Crystal Palace last weekend to end their 10-year stay in the Premier League Credit: Getty Images In the Championship, Burton Albion and Barnsley were relegated on a dramatic final day after Sunderland's fate had been sealed a week earlier. Below the top-flight, Championship new-boys Sheffield United and Millwall both enjoyed top-half finishes while Bolton Wanderers escaped the drop on the final day. In League One, Portsmouth, Plymouth Argyle, Doncaster Rovers, Blackpool all stayed well clear of the bottom four as Bury, MK Dons, Northampton Town, and Oldham Athletic were relegated to the fourth tier. League Two's Forest Green narrowly avoided an immediate return to the Vanarama National League while fellow promoted side Lincoln enjoyed a seventh-place finish, booking their place in the play-offs. Bolton Wanderers came from behind to beat Nottingham Forest on the final day and avoid an instant return to League One Credit: Getty Images In fact, the trend extends beyond the Football League, with Maidenhead United, Ebbsfleet United, Halifax Town and Fylde all securing safety after earning promotion to National League One last season. Huddersfield manager David Wagner was last night quick to praise his players for the "incredible achievement" of defying Premier League relegation. “This is an absolute over-achievement,” said Wagner. Huddersfield came up via the Championship play-offs Credit: PA “It's a bigger achievement than the promotion last season. Last year we were predicted to be relegated and we got promoted. This season we were predicted to be a team relegated by miles and I understand it. “We work under circumstances which are not even Championship circumstances. But part of our DNA, the Huddersfield Town DNA, is to try it. "To have passion, desire... how big you are doesn't count. It's about trying everything. We are humble. We are ambitious, too. We search a chance in every game. Today we were chance-less, more or less. It's an incredible achievement for us. It feels like another trophy.” Promoted teams avoid relegation | English football's top five leagues
Year of the underdog: Every single promoted team in English football's top four divisions avoids relegation
Huddersfield's battling draw with Chelsea completed a remarkable season in which every team that won promotion to English football's top leagues remain in the division. David Wagner's side earned a vital point at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night to guarantee their Premier League safety for another season. The result meant that Huddersfield joined fellow promoted sides Brighton and Newcastle in safely avoiding a return the Championship as Stoke, West Brom and - barring a miracle - Swansea all dropped out of the top flight. For the first time since the 2001-02 season, when Fulham, Blackburn and Bolton defied the odds, every single team that earned promotion to one of English football's top four leagues avoided relegation. Alan Alger, PR manager at bookmakers Betway, said the odds on such an outcome would have been bigger than Leicester City's Premier League title triumph in 2016. Stoke City lost to Crystal Palace last weekend to end their 10-year stay in the Premier League Credit: Getty Images In the Championship, Burton Albion and Barnsley were relegated on a dramatic final day after Sunderland's fate had been sealed a week earlier. Below the top-flight, Championship new-boys Sheffield United and Millwall both enjoyed top-half finishes while Bolton Wanderers escaped the drop on the final day. In League One, Portsmouth, Plymouth Argyle, Doncaster Rovers, Blackpool all stayed well clear of the bottom four as Bury, MK Dons, Northampton Town, and Oldham Athletic were relegated to the fourth tier. League Two's Forest Green narrowly avoided an immediate return to the Vanarama National League while fellow promoted side Lincoln enjoyed a seventh-place finish, booking their place in the play-offs. Bolton Wanderers came from behind to beat Nottingham Forest on the final day and avoid an instant return to League One Credit: Getty Images In fact, the trend extends beyond the Football League, with Maidenhead United, Ebbsfleet United, Halifax Town and Fylde all securing safety after earning promotion to National League One last season. Huddersfield manager David Wagner was last night quick to praise his players for the "incredible achievement" of defying Premier League relegation. “This is an absolute over-achievement,” said Wagner. Huddersfield came up via the Championship play-offs Credit: PA “It's a bigger achievement than the promotion last season. Last year we were predicted to be relegated and we got promoted. This season we were predicted to be a team relegated by miles and I understand it. “We work under circumstances which are not even Championship circumstances. But part of our DNA, the Huddersfield Town DNA, is to try it. "To have passion, desire... how big you are doesn't count. It's about trying everything. We are humble. We are ambitious, too. We search a chance in every game. Today we were chance-less, more or less. It's an incredible achievement for us. It feels like another trophy.” Promoted teams avoid relegation | English football's top five leagues
Carlos Carvalhal is set to leave Swansea after failing in his Premier League survival mission. With Swansea's relegation to the Championship all but confirmed, Carvalhal is heading for the exit after a dreadful run of form and huge question marks over his tactics and mindset. The former Sheffield Wednesday manager provided an initial impact following his appointment in December - taking 17 points from his first nine games - yet a poor run of nine games without a win will force his departure after Sunday's match against Stoke City. Swansea initially appointed Carvalhal with one eye on his experience of the Championship but the club's board have now decided he is not the man to take them forward. His contract expires at the end of the season and an option to extend that deal will now not be triggered. Swansea's drop into the Championship is virtually guaranteed after Huddersfield's draw at Chelsea Credit: Getty Images Swansea's drop into the second tier is virtually guaranteed after Huddersfield's draw at Chelsea on Wednesday night. The Welsh club require a huge victory over Stoke and for Southampton to be heavily beaten by Manchester City on the final day, but it appears nigh on impossibe for Swansea to survive. It means Swansea will now be looking for their fifth manager in under 20 months - after sacking Paul Clement late last year they interviewed Aitor Karanka (now at Nottingham Forest) and Ostersunds' Graham Potter, but the club are expected to look at other options as they prepare for next season. There is also growing pressure on Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins, after a disastrous period defined by abysmal player recruitment. There could even be protests during Sunday's game against Stoke at the Liberty Stadium.
Carlos Carvalhal to leave Swansea after failing to save club from relegation
Carlos Carvalhal is set to leave Swansea after failing in his Premier League survival mission. With Swansea's relegation to the Championship all but confirmed, Carvalhal is heading for the exit after a dreadful run of form and huge question marks over his tactics and mindset. The former Sheffield Wednesday manager provided an initial impact following his appointment in December - taking 17 points from his first nine games - yet a poor run of nine games without a win will force his departure after Sunday's match against Stoke City. Swansea initially appointed Carvalhal with one eye on his experience of the Championship but the club's board have now decided he is not the man to take them forward. His contract expires at the end of the season and an option to extend that deal will now not be triggered. Swansea's drop into the Championship is virtually guaranteed after Huddersfield's draw at Chelsea Credit: Getty Images Swansea's drop into the second tier is virtually guaranteed after Huddersfield's draw at Chelsea on Wednesday night. The Welsh club require a huge victory over Stoke and for Southampton to be heavily beaten by Manchester City on the final day, but it appears nigh on impossibe for Swansea to survive. It means Swansea will now be looking for their fifth manager in under 20 months - after sacking Paul Clement late last year they interviewed Aitor Karanka (now at Nottingham Forest) and Ostersunds' Graham Potter, but the club are expected to look at other options as they prepare for next season. There is also growing pressure on Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins, after a disastrous period defined by abysmal player recruitment. There could even be protests during Sunday's game against Stoke at the Liberty Stadium.
Carlos Carvalhal is set to leave Swansea after failing in his Premier League survival mission. With Swansea's relegation to the Championship all but confirmed, Carvalhal is heading for the exit after a dreadful run of form and huge question marks over his tactics and mindset. The former Sheffield Wednesday manager provided an initial impact following his appointment in December - taking 17 points from his first nine games - yet a poor run of nine games without a win will force his departure after Sunday's match against Stoke City. Swansea initially appointed Carvalhal with one eye on his experience of the Championship but the club's board have now decided he is not the man to take them forward. His contract expires at the end of the season and an option to extend that deal will now not be triggered. Swansea's drop into the Championship is virtually guaranteed after Huddersfield's draw at Chelsea Credit: Getty Images Swansea's drop into the second tier is virtually guaranteed after Huddersfield's draw at Chelsea on Wednesday night. The Welsh club require a huge victory over Stoke and for Southampton to be heavily beaten by Manchester City on the final day, but it appears nigh on impossibe for Swansea to survive. It means Swansea will now be looking for their fifth manager in under 20 months - after sacking Paul Clement late last year they interviewed Aitor Karanka (now at Nottingham Forest) and Ostersunds' Graham Potter, but the club are expected to look at other options as they prepare for next season. There is also growing pressure on Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins, after a disastrous period defined by abysmal player recruitment. There could even be protests during Sunday's game against Stoke at the Liberty Stadium.
Carlos Carvalhal to leave Swansea after failing to save club from relegation
Carlos Carvalhal is set to leave Swansea after failing in his Premier League survival mission. With Swansea's relegation to the Championship all but confirmed, Carvalhal is heading for the exit after a dreadful run of form and huge question marks over his tactics and mindset. The former Sheffield Wednesday manager provided an initial impact following his appointment in December - taking 17 points from his first nine games - yet a poor run of nine games without a win will force his departure after Sunday's match against Stoke City. Swansea initially appointed Carvalhal with one eye on his experience of the Championship but the club's board have now decided he is not the man to take them forward. His contract expires at the end of the season and an option to extend that deal will now not be triggered. Swansea's drop into the Championship is virtually guaranteed after Huddersfield's draw at Chelsea Credit: Getty Images Swansea's drop into the second tier is virtually guaranteed after Huddersfield's draw at Chelsea on Wednesday night. The Welsh club require a huge victory over Stoke and for Southampton to be heavily beaten by Manchester City on the final day, but it appears nigh on impossibe for Swansea to survive. It means Swansea will now be looking for their fifth manager in under 20 months - after sacking Paul Clement late last year they interviewed Aitor Karanka (now at Nottingham Forest) and Ostersunds' Graham Potter, but the club are expected to look at other options as they prepare for next season. There is also growing pressure on Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins, after a disastrous period defined by abysmal player recruitment. There could even be protests during Sunday's game against Stoke at the Liberty Stadium.
Each of the 31 qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup plus the hosts will name their provisional 35 man squads for the tournament by the deadline on May 14, exactly a month before the opening game between Russia and Saudi Arabia on June 14 at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. They will then have until June 4 to cull the numbers down to 23. Those who do not make the cut are likely to be placed on standby in case they are needed to replace any injured players. Replacements can be made at any point until 24 hours before each team's first World Cup game. Here is what we know so far about who is available and who is struggling to make it. Group A Egypt No significant injury worries for Héctor Cúper, not even over the 45-year-old goalkeeper and captain Essam El-Hadary who is firmly on course to become the oldest player in finals history. There are wider concerns over the form of West Brom's shell-shocked Ahmed Hegazi but it is countered by Mohamed Salah's during his outstanding debut season at Liverpool. Russia Stanislav Cherchisov has been tasked with taking the hosts to the last four at least, which will be difficult given their results in a very taxing build-up programme - defeated by Portugal, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and France. Aleksandr Kokorin, the 27-year-old Zenit winger who scored Russia's goal in the draw with Algeria during the 2014 tournament, is all but certain to miss the World Cup having damaged his ACL in mid March. Igor Denisov, the Lokomotiv defensive midfielder and Russia captain under Fabio Capello, fell out with Cherchisov years ago at Dynamo Moscow and the manager has refused to pick him while arguments between Cherchisov and the 6ft 5in striker Artem Dzyuba threaten his involvement. CSKA twins Aleksei and Vasily Berezutski retired after Euro 2016 and have refused the manager's entreaties to return to the squad at the age of 35 following the serious knee injuries suffered by Viktor Vasin and Georgi Dzhikiya. Saudi Arabia The only team at the tournament ranked lower than the hosts, it's a fortuitous coincidence for Russia that they were drawn out to play the curtain-raiser. A resounding defeat by Belgium in March was forgivable but their 4-1 loss inIraq the month before has provoked understandable disquiet. Decisions to send the midfielders Yahya Al-Shehri, Salem Al-Dawsari and Fahad Al-Muwallad on loan to Leganes, Villarreal and Levante respectively in January has backfired. None of the national team stalwarts had played a minute of Liga football by the end of March 2018. Uruguay Oscar Tabárez's team looks as powerful as ever, built around the relentless, uncompromising defensive work of Diego Godín, the attacking prowess of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez supplied by Gastón Ramírez and now with the young, athletic Juventus midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur to add drive to the usual steel. Veteran defender Martín Cáceres has a calf injury that had restricted him to only one appearance by the end of March following his transfer from Verona after that dreadful year at Southampton and remains the major doubt. World Cup predictor Group B Iran Ashkan Dejagah, a Bundesliga title-winner with Wolfsburg and fondly remembered by Fulham fans who elected him player of the year in 2013-14, returned to England with Nottingham Forest as a free agent in January but suffered a knee injury the following month that will keep him out until the end of April. The 31-year-old midfielder, who played all three group matches in Brazil four years ago, is Carlos Queiroz's only significant injury worry. Captain Masoud Shojaei has returned to the squad after seven months and has so far overcome opposition from the deputy sports minister and another parliamentarian for playing for Panionios against Maccabi Tel Aviv in a Europa League qualifier. A national team life ban for playing against a representative of a state Iran does not recognise had been proposed but Queiroz ignored the calls. Morocco The African Nations champions qualified without conceding a goal and three-quarters of the defence that earned them their enviable record - Nabil Dirar, Mehdi Benatia and Romain Saiss - are all fit and in impressive form. The versatile Real Madrid prodigy, Achraf Hakimi, however, was withdrawn from the squad for the March friendlies when injured on the first day of training and is likely to miss a few weeks while the midfielder Ait Bennasser, who hurt his thigh while playing for Caen against Angers in March, is not expected to be back on contention until the beginning of May at the earliest. Zouhair Feddal, who plays at left-back for Real Betis, ruptured his Achilles in February and, barring a miracle, will miss the World Cup. England's World Cup 2018 squad - ranked Portugal Renato Sanches, who was so sensational at Euro 2016 that Bayern Munich agreed a deal to sign the teenage midfielder that committed them to spending as much as £72m for him, has endured a wretched run of form and fitness ever since. His latest hamstring injury while on loan at Swansea has kept him sidelined since mid January and the Premier League club sent him back to Munich at the end of March for treatment, admitting he might not return. But, to much surprise, he returned to the matchday squad for the visit of Chelsea on April 28 but didn't get on in the 1-0 defeat. Major concerns persist over the durability of the veteran central defenders - Jose Fonte and Bruno Silva, 34 and 36 respectively - who are currently fit but have had lengthy lay-offs in recent months while the 35-year-old Pepe is nursing a broken toe. Spain No significant injury concerns so far for Julen Lopetegui but the form of Alvaro Morata at Chelsea has been a worry and led to him being left out of the squad for the spring friendlies. Diego Costa, in the rudest of health and spirit at Atlético Madrid, should lead the line which may make a romantic recall for Spain's top-scorer, New York City's David Villa, at the age of 36 far more remote than it seemed last autumn. Cesc Fabregas and Bayern Munich's Javi Martínez have been notable omissions from Lopetegui's squads ever since he took over from Vicente del Bosque in 2016 and while neither are resigned to missing out, recalls at this late stage are extremely unlikely. Group C Australia Bert van Marwijk, appointed in January on a seven-month contract, recalled the goalkeeper Brad Jones after four years out of international football in his first squad and the former Liverpool reserve, now with Feyenoord, has a good chance of making it to Russia in place of Adam Federici, the Bournemouth back-up, who has not played for 15 months after suffering back-to-back knee injuries. Matthew Spiranovic, a free agent since his release by Zhejiang Greentown in February, will pay the price for not heeding former manager Ange Postecoglou who repeatedly warned him that playing in the Chinese second division was not adequate preparation for a World Cup place. Melbourne Victory centre-half Rhys Williams, hoping to make his first World Cup after injury ruled him out of South Africa and Brazil, tore his calf on April 29 and looks like making it third time unlucky. Kaiserslautern's Brandon Borrello ruptured his ACL during a training session in the last week of April and has no chance of making it. Denmark Chelsea's Andreas Christensen and Brentford's Henrik Dalsgaard were sent home early from the squads for the spring friendlies, the former because of 'exhaustion' and the latter excused to spend some time with his newborn daughter. Both have been told that they are certainties for Age Hareide's 23.Central defender Andreas Bjelland has been troubled by an achilles injury but has returned to the Brentford squad while Lasse Vibe, who left Griffin Park in February for the Chinese Super League's Changchun Yatai, is running out of time to prove his fitness and sharpness after heel and hamstring injuries blighted the first half of his season. World Cup 2018 stadiums France Laurent Koscielny will miss the tournament after rupturing his achilles tendon in Arsenal's Europa League semi-final, second leg against Atletico Madrid. Benjamin Mendy has been out since September with a cruciate ligament injury but has been training with Manchester City's first-team squad since the beginning of March and should be back before the end of the season. If the left-back makes it he may go straight into the starting XI given Layvin Kurzawa's recent loss of form at PSG. Florian Thauvin, who has gone from zero to hero on his return from Newcastle to Marseille, should overcome a hamstring injury to make it but squad stalwarts Alexandre Lacazette, Moussa Sissoko and Dimitri Payet may all miss out after disappointing domestic seasons. Djibril Sidibe has injured the meniscus in his right knee and will miss the end of Monaco's season but the right-back hopes to be back in time to make Didier Deschamps' XXIII. Peru First-choice goalkeeper Pedro Gallese had knee surgery to correct a meniscus problem last February and though he is behind schedule to return for his Mexican league club Veracruz, remains confident that he will be ready for the friendly against Scotland on May 29. Veteran striker and captain Paolo Guerrero is currently serving a six-month ban after testing positive for cocaine and other banned drugs following Peru's draw with Argentina last October. Peru will bring their famous kit to the World Cup finals for the first time since 1982 Credit: FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images His suspension, reduced on appeal, ends on May 3 but his second appeal will be heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport before then as he continues to maintain he was the victim of contaminated food. Group D Argentina Ramiro Funes Mori's return to Everton's bench on the last day of March after more than a year out with a knee injury is a fillip to Jorge Sampaoli and his creaking defence. Roma winger Diego Perotti should return from a calf strain by the middle of April but Boca Juniors' playmaker Fernando Gago and centre-forward Dario Benedetto have been ruled out by their club who hope to have them back for pre-season training though neither severe knee-injury victim has given up hope of 11th-hour breakthroughs in their recovery regimes. World Cup Russian host cities you've never heard of Croatia Veterans Danijel Subasic, Dejan Lovren, Marcelo Brozovic, Ivan Perisic, Luka Modric, Nikola Kalinic and Mario Mandzukic all withdrew from last month's two-match tour to the United States to conserve their energies but they are fit and certainties for the squad barring any late setbacks. Ante Rebic, the Eintracht Frankfurt winger, and Fiorentina's defensive midfielder Milan Baldelj have missed games in April with a torn calf and rib injuries respectively but are due back before the end of the month and should take their places in Zlatko Dalic's 23. Iceland The medial ligament injury Gylfi Sigurdsson sustained in his right knee when playing for Everton against Brighton at the beginning of March was expected to end his domestic season while keeping a glimmer of hope alive that he would be fit for Russia. Sam Allardyce said he would personally deliver a 'b---------' to the employee who released a statement saying he was out for eight weeks and countered it by suggesting that the playmaker was a quick healer and may be back before May which gives Heimir Hallgrimsson grounds for optimism. Alfreð Finnbogason, the Augsburg centre-forward, who has been out since the end of January with a calf injury, is expected to make his comeback in mid April. Nigeria Wilfred Ndidi will miss the end of Leicester' season with a hamstring damaged during their walloping by Crystal Palace on April 28. His team-mate Kelechi Iheanacho broke his hand while playing for the Super Eagles during their defeat by Serbia last month but returned to bench duty for Leicester after missing only one Premier League game. Henry Onyekuru, the Everton forward who is spending 2017-18 on loan at Anderlecht, underwent knee ligament surgery in December but insisted he would be in contention to make the squad. On April 2 he returned to first-team training and says he will be ready to play and add to his nine league goals in 19 appearances before the month is out. Group E Brazil Neymar's metatarsal injury on Feb 25 threatened to turn into another bout of national self-flagellation and despondency but the initial prognosis that he would be out for 12 weeks still gives him time to recover and subsequent revisions of his estimated absence that have shaved four weeks off his return date should allow him to find some sharpness, too. Philippe Coutinho's ropey form since moving to Barcelona will not discourage Tite, who will use the Anfield friendly against Croatia at the start of June to reacquaint him with his best days alongside familiar faces in familiar surroundings. Filipe Luis, the Atlético left-back and back-up to Marcelo, fractured his fibula in mid-March but is hopeful of returning should Diego Simeone's team qualify for the Europa League final. Tite has never had much time for David Luiz's qualities and though the centre-back, whose knee injury has kept him out of Chelsea's squad since the middle of February, is striving to put himself in contention, his quest will probably be in vain. Costa Rica Joel Campbell, remarkably still an Arsenal player, injured his ankle while playing on loan for Real Betis at the end of October and has not played since. The forward reported that he was fit at the end of February and has returned to full training so seems likely to make the cut for the squad even if he will be woefully lacking match fitness, not that it did Paolo Rossi much harm in 1982 nor Marco van Basten at Euro 88. New York City left-back Ronald Matarrita has a hamstring injury that has hampered his preparations and Portland Timbers' defensive midfielder David Guzman has missed the past fortnight with a sprained knee sustained on international duty. The state of Neymar's health has become a Brazilian obsession Credit: REUTERS/Stephane Mahe Switzerland Vladimir Petkovic expects Udinese's Valon Behrami to recover from his shoulder injury in a couple of weeks and has no other pressing concerns. Eren Derdiyok. Admir Mehmedi and Xherdan Shaqiri all sat out the recent friendlies (a 1-0 victory over Greece and a 6-0 thrashing of Panama) but should make the final squad when it is announced on May 14. Serbia Matija Nastasic damaged knee ligaments on April 12 playing for Schalke and the best prognosis for the centre-half is a six-week recuperation. Mladen Krstajic, a fine defender for Partizan, Werder Bremen, Schalke and the national team but a rookie coach appointed to this, his first job, only last December, has all his core players fit and only Benfica's Ljubomir Fejsa, the defensive midfielder who has won 10 successive league titles across three countries, suffering from recurring but minor, niggling problems. Fejsa has not played for Serbia since 2016 and would be a back-up only to Nemanja Matic and Luka Milivojevic if he makes the squad but would be a contender for tattoo of the tournament for the chest tableau that commemorates his return from serious injury while playing for Partizan and his later triumphs with Olympiakos and Benfica. ...⚽️❗️....done✔️ #f5 #justdone #stillfresh Obrigado Mareeee���� @maretattoo A post shared by Fejsa Ljubomir & Suzana (@fejsa5) on Mar 25, 2018 at 1:42pm PDT Group F Germany Borussia Monchengladbach's Lars Stindl is out with an ankle injury but Manuel Neuer returned to full goalkeeper training on April 5 after six months out having fractured a metatarsal in his left foot for the third time in a year and undergone surgery to insert a plate to protect the bone. The Bayern Munich and Germany captain has manged only three Bundesliga appearances this season yet, although Joachim Löw has benefited from his absence by exploiting it to give Marc-Andre Ter Stegen valuable international experience, the world champions will go to the wire to include Neuer. Jerome Boateng, though, is a serious doubt after injuring his knee during the first leg of Bayern Munich's Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid. Boateng was injured during Bayern Munich's Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid Credit: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images Marco Reus, who missed the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 with ankle and groin injuries, made his comeback from cruciate ligament surgery in February after eight months out and Borussia Dortmund have nursed his return, allowing him time off to recover from soreness, over the past few weeks. "With Marco," said Löw, "it's important to us that he is brought to the top level carefully and without further pressure and that he gains in stability." Mario Götze, the scorer of the winning goal at Maracana, was left out of the squad for the spring friendlies after a dip in form while his Dortmund team-mate and World Cup final goal-provider Andre Schürrle, finally free of knee and achilles injuries, has impressed Löw sufficiently to reassure him that he still has a chance but has yet to earn a call-up. Mexico Giovani Dos Santos should be back for LA Galaxy by the end of April after his hamstring injury in early March and will resume his place in Mexico's midfield alongside Porto captain Hector Herrera who travelled with the national team for the spring double header against Iceland and Croatia but was sent back to his club for treatment because of an unspecified muscle injury. Starting central defender Carlos Salcedeo broke his collarbone during the defeat by Croatia and had surgery to have it pinned but is expected to return for Eintracht Frankfurt just before the end of the season. Another key defender, Nestor Araujo who plays for Santos Laguna, was also injured in the same match and has had keyhole surgery to repair meniscus damage. He, too, is expected to make a first-team comeback before the squad deadline of May 14. South Korea Shin Tae-yong's greatest concern last month as he prepares for his first tournament since moving up from U-20 manager to secure qualification centred not on fitness but the fatigue of Son Heung-min after a long season and a gruelling buil-up to it. "For most Europe-based players, they are used to getting in shape in August before the new season starts. I'm really worried that Son's form might go down from May, with his concentration waning and him becoming physically exhausted," he said. Former Middlesbrough striker Lee Dong-gook, a member of the France 98 squad at the age of 18, harbours hopes of a place after a recall last September for the final qualifier against Uzbekistan but he has not been picked since. The sitter he missed against Uruguay at the 2010 World Cup haunted him for years but most supporters seem to have forgiven him and would welcome the selection of the K-League's highest scorer. Sweden It would be unfair for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who played no part in qualification having retired after Euro 2016, to overshadow the preparations of the squad in making it to Russia but his possible return, despite his controversial link-up with a betting firm that would seem to preclude him being recalled under Fifa regulations, is dominating their build-up. "Just as with the national team, if I want to play, I’ll play," he said. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has not ruled out a comeback Credit: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong “This is not a question for Fifa, it’s a question for me and what I want.” Janne Andersson has no injury worries with a month to go but the inexperience of all his goalkeepers must be a cause of some disquiet. Robin Olsen performed heroically against Italy in the second leg of the play-off but he has only 16 caps and the manager has tried several alternatives in pursuit of an undisputed No1. Group G Belgium Michy Batshuayi, having scored nine goals in 14 games during a terrific loan spell at Dortmund, left the field on a stretcher on April 15 after sustaining an ankle injury during the derby defeat by Schalke that has ended his season but not his World Cup chances even if they are now very slim indeed. Vincent Kompany's return to form and fitness has removed Roberto Martínez's most long-standing doubt though Christian Benteke's travails in front of goal for Crystal Palace had put his chances of a squad place as a back-up to Romelu Lukaku at serious risk until Batshuayi's injury. Nacer Chadli has missed West Brom's doomed 'fight' against relegation since December with hip and thigh injuries but Albion report that he is ready to return on April 21 after an impressive showing in training. Thibaut Courtois has recovered from the hamstring injury that kept him out of the spring friendlies and Chelsea's defeat by Spurs for whom Toby Alderweireld remains on the peripheries, which must be a worry for Martínez. England Liverpool pair Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joe Gomez miss the tournament through injury but team-mate Nathaniel Clyne is making gradual returns to first-team football and may be a late contender for a squad place. Phil Jones has suffered recurrent hamstring injuries this season and, although he is now fit while Jack Wilshere, who withdrew from the spring squads, remains an outsider as does Ruben Loftus-Cheek who has returned to Palace's side after three months out with an ankle injury and knee pain. Adam Lallana has endured a desperate run with injuries Credit: Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs Nathaniel Chalobah joined the England squad in March to continue his rehabilitation from a fractured knee-cap but is unlikely to play for Watford before the season's end while Daniel Sturridge was out for two months with a hamstring injury that has turned his loan move to West Bromwich into an exorbitant farce. Adam Lallana has gone to South Africa for rehab therapy on his injured hamstring and Gareth Southgate is understood to be willing to give him until May 13 to prove he can make it but that has to be a serious doubt after a couple of injury-wrecked seasons. Panama The World Cup finals debutants have no injuries to report and Hernán Darío Gómez has a full-strength squad of relatively unknown but remarkably experienced players - the 24 men picked for the spring friendlies averaged 59 caps each - ready for Russia. Tunisia Tunisia have suffered the worst blow of all 32 teams to date, losing their playmaker Youssef Msakni, who suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury on April 7 that will keep him out for at least six months. The attacking midfielder, who has 49 caps, tore an anterior ligament playing for his Qatar Stars League club, Al-Duhail, against Al-Sailiya. Nabil Maloul, Tunisia's manager, was asked in March what Msakni's absence would mean when the player could not feature in the spring friendlies because of a minor meniscus problem that required 10 days' rest, he said it would be like Argentina going to Russia without Lionel Messi. Group H Colombia Juan Cuadrado gave Jose Pekerman a scare by injuring his groin back in January and the initial prognosis, that he would be out for at least three months after surgery, possibly six, was discouraging. But the winger made his return for Juventus ahead of schedule last month while Sampdoria's Duvan Zapata, who missed their match with Cagliari on April 28, should also make it back before the end of the season. Japan Turmoil at management level - Akira Nishino replaced Vahid Halilhodzic at the beginning of April - contrasts with relative serenity over options for selection. Second-choice keeper, Masaaki Higashiguchi, fractured his cheekbone on April 21 but is likely to make the World Cup 23 even if he has to play in a face mask for precautionary reasons. Marseille defender Hiroki Sakai was ruled out for three weeks in April with a medial collateral ligament strain in his left knee and misses both legs of their Europa League semifinal against Red Bull Salzburg but is confident of recovering in time to participate in Russia. World Cup 2018 venues Poland Veteran midfielder, the live blogger's friend Jakub Blaszczykowski, made his first start for Hamburg since February on April 28 and should be fit to make a squad that has no major current concerns about its key components. Artur Boruc, who had 60 caps, announced his international retirement last year bur had long since taken the role of third banana behind Lukasz Fabianski and Wojciech Szczesny. Senegal Monaco's fiery forward Keita Balde has been out since April 7 with a hamstring injury but should be back for the St Etienne game on May 12.The principal worry for Aliou Cisse concered his centre-back and vice-captain Kara Mbodji, who has not played since before Christmas following knee surgery for an injury he picked up playing for Anderlecht. After thrice-daily rehab sessions, Kara says he hopes to be involved for their final league game against Club Brugge on May 6.
World Cup 2018 squad guide: Latest group news and updates
Each of the 31 qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup plus the hosts will name their provisional 35 man squads for the tournament by the deadline on May 14, exactly a month before the opening game between Russia and Saudi Arabia on June 14 at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. They will then have until June 4 to cull the numbers down to 23. Those who do not make the cut are likely to be placed on standby in case they are needed to replace any injured players. Replacements can be made at any point until 24 hours before each team's first World Cup game. Here is what we know so far about who is available and who is struggling to make it. Group A Egypt No significant injury worries for Héctor Cúper, not even over the 45-year-old goalkeeper and captain Essam El-Hadary who is firmly on course to become the oldest player in finals history. There are wider concerns over the form of West Brom's shell-shocked Ahmed Hegazi but it is countered by Mohamed Salah's during his outstanding debut season at Liverpool. Russia Stanislav Cherchisov has been tasked with taking the hosts to the last four at least, which will be difficult given their results in a very taxing build-up programme - defeated by Portugal, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and France. Aleksandr Kokorin, the 27-year-old Zenit winger who scored Russia's goal in the draw with Algeria during the 2014 tournament, is all but certain to miss the World Cup having damaged his ACL in mid March. Igor Denisov, the Lokomotiv defensive midfielder and Russia captain under Fabio Capello, fell out with Cherchisov years ago at Dynamo Moscow and the manager has refused to pick him while arguments between Cherchisov and the 6ft 5in striker Artem Dzyuba threaten his involvement. CSKA twins Aleksei and Vasily Berezutski retired after Euro 2016 and have refused the manager's entreaties to return to the squad at the age of 35 following the serious knee injuries suffered by Viktor Vasin and Georgi Dzhikiya. Saudi Arabia The only team at the tournament ranked lower than the hosts, it's a fortuitous coincidence for Russia that they were drawn out to play the curtain-raiser. A resounding defeat by Belgium in March was forgivable but their 4-1 loss inIraq the month before has provoked understandable disquiet. Decisions to send the midfielders Yahya Al-Shehri, Salem Al-Dawsari and Fahad Al-Muwallad on loan to Leganes, Villarreal and Levante respectively in January has backfired. None of the national team stalwarts had played a minute of Liga football by the end of March 2018. Uruguay Oscar Tabárez's team looks as powerful as ever, built around the relentless, uncompromising defensive work of Diego Godín, the attacking prowess of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez supplied by Gastón Ramírez and now with the young, athletic Juventus midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur to add drive to the usual steel. Veteran defender Martín Cáceres has a calf injury that had restricted him to only one appearance by the end of March following his transfer from Verona after that dreadful year at Southampton and remains the major doubt. World Cup predictor Group B Iran Ashkan Dejagah, a Bundesliga title-winner with Wolfsburg and fondly remembered by Fulham fans who elected him player of the year in 2013-14, returned to England with Nottingham Forest as a free agent in January but suffered a knee injury the following month that will keep him out until the end of April. The 31-year-old midfielder, who played all three group matches in Brazil four years ago, is Carlos Queiroz's only significant injury worry. Captain Masoud Shojaei has returned to the squad after seven months and has so far overcome opposition from the deputy sports minister and another parliamentarian for playing for Panionios against Maccabi Tel Aviv in a Europa League qualifier. A national team life ban for playing against a representative of a state Iran does not recognise had been proposed but Queiroz ignored the calls. Morocco The African Nations champions qualified without conceding a goal and three-quarters of the defence that earned them their enviable record - Nabil Dirar, Mehdi Benatia and Romain Saiss - are all fit and in impressive form. The versatile Real Madrid prodigy, Achraf Hakimi, however, was withdrawn from the squad for the March friendlies when injured on the first day of training and is likely to miss a few weeks while the midfielder Ait Bennasser, who hurt his thigh while playing for Caen against Angers in March, is not expected to be back on contention until the beginning of May at the earliest. Zouhair Feddal, who plays at left-back for Real Betis, ruptured his Achilles in February and, barring a miracle, will miss the World Cup. England's World Cup 2018 squad - ranked Portugal Renato Sanches, who was so sensational at Euro 2016 that Bayern Munich agreed a deal to sign the teenage midfielder that committed them to spending as much as £72m for him, has endured a wretched run of form and fitness ever since. His latest hamstring injury while on loan at Swansea has kept him sidelined since mid January and the Premier League club sent him back to Munich at the end of March for treatment, admitting he might not return. But, to much surprise, he returned to the matchday squad for the visit of Chelsea on April 28 but didn't get on in the 1-0 defeat. Major concerns persist over the durability of the veteran central defenders - Jose Fonte and Bruno Silva, 34 and 36 respectively - who are currently fit but have had lengthy lay-offs in recent months while the 35-year-old Pepe is nursing a broken toe. Spain No significant injury concerns so far for Julen Lopetegui but the form of Alvaro Morata at Chelsea has been a worry and led to him being left out of the squad for the spring friendlies. Diego Costa, in the rudest of health and spirit at Atlético Madrid, should lead the line which may make a romantic recall for Spain's top-scorer, New York City's David Villa, at the age of 36 far more remote than it seemed last autumn. Cesc Fabregas and Bayern Munich's Javi Martínez have been notable omissions from Lopetegui's squads ever since he took over from Vicente del Bosque in 2016 and while neither are resigned to missing out, recalls at this late stage are extremely unlikely. Group C Australia Bert van Marwijk, appointed in January on a seven-month contract, recalled the goalkeeper Brad Jones after four years out of international football in his first squad and the former Liverpool reserve, now with Feyenoord, has a good chance of making it to Russia in place of Adam Federici, the Bournemouth back-up, who has not played for 15 months after suffering back-to-back knee injuries. Matthew Spiranovic, a free agent since his release by Zhejiang Greentown in February, will pay the price for not heeding former manager Ange Postecoglou who repeatedly warned him that playing in the Chinese second division was not adequate preparation for a World Cup place. Melbourne Victory centre-half Rhys Williams, hoping to make his first World Cup after injury ruled him out of South Africa and Brazil, tore his calf on April 29 and looks like making it third time unlucky. Kaiserslautern's Brandon Borrello ruptured his ACL during a training session in the last week of April and has no chance of making it. Denmark Chelsea's Andreas Christensen and Brentford's Henrik Dalsgaard were sent home early from the squads for the spring friendlies, the former because of 'exhaustion' and the latter excused to spend some time with his newborn daughter. Both have been told that they are certainties for Age Hareide's 23.Central defender Andreas Bjelland has been troubled by an achilles injury but has returned to the Brentford squad while Lasse Vibe, who left Griffin Park in February for the Chinese Super League's Changchun Yatai, is running out of time to prove his fitness and sharpness after heel and hamstring injuries blighted the first half of his season. World Cup 2018 stadiums France Laurent Koscielny will miss the tournament after rupturing his achilles tendon in Arsenal's Europa League semi-final, second leg against Atletico Madrid. Benjamin Mendy has been out since September with a cruciate ligament injury but has been training with Manchester City's first-team squad since the beginning of March and should be back before the end of the season. If the left-back makes it he may go straight into the starting XI given Layvin Kurzawa's recent loss of form at PSG. Florian Thauvin, who has gone from zero to hero on his return from Newcastle to Marseille, should overcome a hamstring injury to make it but squad stalwarts Alexandre Lacazette, Moussa Sissoko and Dimitri Payet may all miss out after disappointing domestic seasons. Djibril Sidibe has injured the meniscus in his right knee and will miss the end of Monaco's season but the right-back hopes to be back in time to make Didier Deschamps' XXIII. Peru First-choice goalkeeper Pedro Gallese had knee surgery to correct a meniscus problem last February and though he is behind schedule to return for his Mexican league club Veracruz, remains confident that he will be ready for the friendly against Scotland on May 29. Veteran striker and captain Paolo Guerrero is currently serving a six-month ban after testing positive for cocaine and other banned drugs following Peru's draw with Argentina last October. Peru will bring their famous kit to the World Cup finals for the first time since 1982 Credit: FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images His suspension, reduced on appeal, ends on May 3 but his second appeal will be heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport before then as he continues to maintain he was the victim of contaminated food. Group D Argentina Ramiro Funes Mori's return to Everton's bench on the last day of March after more than a year out with a knee injury is a fillip to Jorge Sampaoli and his creaking defence. Roma winger Diego Perotti should return from a calf strain by the middle of April but Boca Juniors' playmaker Fernando Gago and centre-forward Dario Benedetto have been ruled out by their club who hope to have them back for pre-season training though neither severe knee-injury victim has given up hope of 11th-hour breakthroughs in their recovery regimes. World Cup Russian host cities you've never heard of Croatia Veterans Danijel Subasic, Dejan Lovren, Marcelo Brozovic, Ivan Perisic, Luka Modric, Nikola Kalinic and Mario Mandzukic all withdrew from last month's two-match tour to the United States to conserve their energies but they are fit and certainties for the squad barring any late setbacks. Ante Rebic, the Eintracht Frankfurt winger, and Fiorentina's defensive midfielder Milan Baldelj have missed games in April with a torn calf and rib injuries respectively but are due back before the end of the month and should take their places in Zlatko Dalic's 23. Iceland The medial ligament injury Gylfi Sigurdsson sustained in his right knee when playing for Everton against Brighton at the beginning of March was expected to end his domestic season while keeping a glimmer of hope alive that he would be fit for Russia. Sam Allardyce said he would personally deliver a 'b---------' to the employee who released a statement saying he was out for eight weeks and countered it by suggesting that the playmaker was a quick healer and may be back before May which gives Heimir Hallgrimsson grounds for optimism. Alfreð Finnbogason, the Augsburg centre-forward, who has been out since the end of January with a calf injury, is expected to make his comeback in mid April. Nigeria Wilfred Ndidi will miss the end of Leicester' season with a hamstring damaged during their walloping by Crystal Palace on April 28. His team-mate Kelechi Iheanacho broke his hand while playing for the Super Eagles during their defeat by Serbia last month but returned to bench duty for Leicester after missing only one Premier League game. Henry Onyekuru, the Everton forward who is spending 2017-18 on loan at Anderlecht, underwent knee ligament surgery in December but insisted he would be in contention to make the squad. On April 2 he returned to first-team training and says he will be ready to play and add to his nine league goals in 19 appearances before the month is out. Group E Brazil Neymar's metatarsal injury on Feb 25 threatened to turn into another bout of national self-flagellation and despondency but the initial prognosis that he would be out for 12 weeks still gives him time to recover and subsequent revisions of his estimated absence that have shaved four weeks off his return date should allow him to find some sharpness, too. Philippe Coutinho's ropey form since moving to Barcelona will not discourage Tite, who will use the Anfield friendly against Croatia at the start of June to reacquaint him with his best days alongside familiar faces in familiar surroundings. Filipe Luis, the Atlético left-back and back-up to Marcelo, fractured his fibula in mid-March but is hopeful of returning should Diego Simeone's team qualify for the Europa League final. Tite has never had much time for David Luiz's qualities and though the centre-back, whose knee injury has kept him out of Chelsea's squad since the middle of February, is striving to put himself in contention, his quest will probably be in vain. Costa Rica Joel Campbell, remarkably still an Arsenal player, injured his ankle while playing on loan for Real Betis at the end of October and has not played since. The forward reported that he was fit at the end of February and has returned to full training so seems likely to make the cut for the squad even if he will be woefully lacking match fitness, not that it did Paolo Rossi much harm in 1982 nor Marco van Basten at Euro 88. New York City left-back Ronald Matarrita has a hamstring injury that has hampered his preparations and Portland Timbers' defensive midfielder David Guzman has missed the past fortnight with a sprained knee sustained on international duty. The state of Neymar's health has become a Brazilian obsession Credit: REUTERS/Stephane Mahe Switzerland Vladimir Petkovic expects Udinese's Valon Behrami to recover from his shoulder injury in a couple of weeks and has no other pressing concerns. Eren Derdiyok. Admir Mehmedi and Xherdan Shaqiri all sat out the recent friendlies (a 1-0 victory over Greece and a 6-0 thrashing of Panama) but should make the final squad when it is announced on May 14. Serbia Matija Nastasic damaged knee ligaments on April 12 playing for Schalke and the best prognosis for the centre-half is a six-week recuperation. Mladen Krstajic, a fine defender for Partizan, Werder Bremen, Schalke and the national team but a rookie coach appointed to this, his first job, only last December, has all his core players fit and only Benfica's Ljubomir Fejsa, the defensive midfielder who has won 10 successive league titles across three countries, suffering from recurring but minor, niggling problems. Fejsa has not played for Serbia since 2016 and would be a back-up only to Nemanja Matic and Luka Milivojevic if he makes the squad but would be a contender for tattoo of the tournament for the chest tableau that commemorates his return from serious injury while playing for Partizan and his later triumphs with Olympiakos and Benfica. ...⚽️❗️....done✔️ #f5 #justdone #stillfresh Obrigado Mareeee���� @maretattoo A post shared by Fejsa Ljubomir & Suzana (@fejsa5) on Mar 25, 2018 at 1:42pm PDT Group F Germany Borussia Monchengladbach's Lars Stindl is out with an ankle injury but Manuel Neuer returned to full goalkeeper training on April 5 after six months out having fractured a metatarsal in his left foot for the third time in a year and undergone surgery to insert a plate to protect the bone. The Bayern Munich and Germany captain has manged only three Bundesliga appearances this season yet, although Joachim Löw has benefited from his absence by exploiting it to give Marc-Andre Ter Stegen valuable international experience, the world champions will go to the wire to include Neuer. Jerome Boateng, though, is a serious doubt after injuring his knee during the first leg of Bayern Munich's Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid. Boateng was injured during Bayern Munich's Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid Credit: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images Marco Reus, who missed the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 with ankle and groin injuries, made his comeback from cruciate ligament surgery in February after eight months out and Borussia Dortmund have nursed his return, allowing him time off to recover from soreness, over the past few weeks. "With Marco," said Löw, "it's important to us that he is brought to the top level carefully and without further pressure and that he gains in stability." Mario Götze, the scorer of the winning goal at Maracana, was left out of the squad for the spring friendlies after a dip in form while his Dortmund team-mate and World Cup final goal-provider Andre Schürrle, finally free of knee and achilles injuries, has impressed Löw sufficiently to reassure him that he still has a chance but has yet to earn a call-up. Mexico Giovani Dos Santos should be back for LA Galaxy by the end of April after his hamstring injury in early March and will resume his place in Mexico's midfield alongside Porto captain Hector Herrera who travelled with the national team for the spring double header against Iceland and Croatia but was sent back to his club for treatment because of an unspecified muscle injury. Starting central defender Carlos Salcedeo broke his collarbone during the defeat by Croatia and had surgery to have it pinned but is expected to return for Eintracht Frankfurt just before the end of the season. Another key defender, Nestor Araujo who plays for Santos Laguna, was also injured in the same match and has had keyhole surgery to repair meniscus damage. He, too, is expected to make a first-team comeback before the squad deadline of May 14. South Korea Shin Tae-yong's greatest concern last month as he prepares for his first tournament since moving up from U-20 manager to secure qualification centred not on fitness but the fatigue of Son Heung-min after a long season and a gruelling buil-up to it. "For most Europe-based players, they are used to getting in shape in August before the new season starts. I'm really worried that Son's form might go down from May, with his concentration waning and him becoming physically exhausted," he said. Former Middlesbrough striker Lee Dong-gook, a member of the France 98 squad at the age of 18, harbours hopes of a place after a recall last September for the final qualifier against Uzbekistan but he has not been picked since. The sitter he missed against Uruguay at the 2010 World Cup haunted him for years but most supporters seem to have forgiven him and would welcome the selection of the K-League's highest scorer. Sweden It would be unfair for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who played no part in qualification having retired after Euro 2016, to overshadow the preparations of the squad in making it to Russia but his possible return, despite his controversial link-up with a betting firm that would seem to preclude him being recalled under Fifa regulations, is dominating their build-up. "Just as with the national team, if I want to play, I’ll play," he said. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has not ruled out a comeback Credit: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong “This is not a question for Fifa, it’s a question for me and what I want.” Janne Andersson has no injury worries with a month to go but the inexperience of all his goalkeepers must be a cause of some disquiet. Robin Olsen performed heroically against Italy in the second leg of the play-off but he has only 16 caps and the manager has tried several alternatives in pursuit of an undisputed No1. Group G Belgium Michy Batshuayi, having scored nine goals in 14 games during a terrific loan spell at Dortmund, left the field on a stretcher on April 15 after sustaining an ankle injury during the derby defeat by Schalke that has ended his season but not his World Cup chances even if they are now very slim indeed. Vincent Kompany's return to form and fitness has removed Roberto Martínez's most long-standing doubt though Christian Benteke's travails in front of goal for Crystal Palace had put his chances of a squad place as a back-up to Romelu Lukaku at serious risk until Batshuayi's injury. Nacer Chadli has missed West Brom's doomed 'fight' against relegation since December with hip and thigh injuries but Albion report that he is ready to return on April 21 after an impressive showing in training. Thibaut Courtois has recovered from the hamstring injury that kept him out of the spring friendlies and Chelsea's defeat by Spurs for whom Toby Alderweireld remains on the peripheries, which must be a worry for Martínez. England Liverpool pair Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joe Gomez miss the tournament through injury but team-mate Nathaniel Clyne is making gradual returns to first-team football and may be a late contender for a squad place. Phil Jones has suffered recurrent hamstring injuries this season and, although he is now fit while Jack Wilshere, who withdrew from the spring squads, remains an outsider as does Ruben Loftus-Cheek who has returned to Palace's side after three months out with an ankle injury and knee pain. Adam Lallana has endured a desperate run with injuries Credit: Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs Nathaniel Chalobah joined the England squad in March to continue his rehabilitation from a fractured knee-cap but is unlikely to play for Watford before the season's end while Daniel Sturridge was out for two months with a hamstring injury that has turned his loan move to West Bromwich into an exorbitant farce. Adam Lallana has gone to South Africa for rehab therapy on his injured hamstring and Gareth Southgate is understood to be willing to give him until May 13 to prove he can make it but that has to be a serious doubt after a couple of injury-wrecked seasons. Panama The World Cup finals debutants have no injuries to report and Hernán Darío Gómez has a full-strength squad of relatively unknown but remarkably experienced players - the 24 men picked for the spring friendlies averaged 59 caps each - ready for Russia. Tunisia Tunisia have suffered the worst blow of all 32 teams to date, losing their playmaker Youssef Msakni, who suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury on April 7 that will keep him out for at least six months. The attacking midfielder, who has 49 caps, tore an anterior ligament playing for his Qatar Stars League club, Al-Duhail, against Al-Sailiya. Nabil Maloul, Tunisia's manager, was asked in March what Msakni's absence would mean when the player could not feature in the spring friendlies because of a minor meniscus problem that required 10 days' rest, he said it would be like Argentina going to Russia without Lionel Messi. Group H Colombia Juan Cuadrado gave Jose Pekerman a scare by injuring his groin back in January and the initial prognosis, that he would be out for at least three months after surgery, possibly six, was discouraging. But the winger made his return for Juventus ahead of schedule last month while Sampdoria's Duvan Zapata, who missed their match with Cagliari on April 28, should also make it back before the end of the season. Japan Turmoil at management level - Akira Nishino replaced Vahid Halilhodzic at the beginning of April - contrasts with relative serenity over options for selection. Second-choice keeper, Masaaki Higashiguchi, fractured his cheekbone on April 21 but is likely to make the World Cup 23 even if he has to play in a face mask for precautionary reasons. Marseille defender Hiroki Sakai was ruled out for three weeks in April with a medial collateral ligament strain in his left knee and misses both legs of their Europa League semifinal against Red Bull Salzburg but is confident of recovering in time to participate in Russia. World Cup 2018 venues Poland Veteran midfielder, the live blogger's friend Jakub Blaszczykowski, made his first start for Hamburg since February on April 28 and should be fit to make a squad that has no major current concerns about its key components. Artur Boruc, who had 60 caps, announced his international retirement last year bur had long since taken the role of third banana behind Lukasz Fabianski and Wojciech Szczesny. Senegal Monaco's fiery forward Keita Balde has been out since April 7 with a hamstring injury but should be back for the St Etienne game on May 12.The principal worry for Aliou Cisse concered his centre-back and vice-captain Kara Mbodji, who has not played since before Christmas following knee surgery for an injury he picked up playing for Anderlecht. After thrice-daily rehab sessions, Kara says he hopes to be involved for their final league game against Club Brugge on May 6.
Each of the 31 qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup plus the hosts will name their provisional 35 man squads for the tournament by the deadline on May 14, exactly a month before the opening game between Russia and Saudi Arabia on June 14 at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. They will then have until June 4 to cull the numbers down to 23. Those who do not make the cut are likely to be placed on standby in case they are needed to replace any injured players. Replacements can be made at any point until 24 hours before each team's first World Cup game. Here is what we know so far about who is available and who is struggling to make it. Group A Egypt No significant injury worries for Héctor Cúper, not even over the 45-year-old goalkeeper and captain Essam El-Hadary who is firmly on course to become the oldest player in finals history. There are wider concerns over the form of West Brom's shell-shocked Ahmed Hegazi but it is countered by Mohamed Salah's during his outstanding debut season at Liverpool. Russia Stanislav Cherchisov has been tasked with taking the hosts to the last four at least, which will be difficult given their results in a very taxing build-up programme - defeated by Portugal, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and France. Aleksandr Kokorin, the 27-year-old Zenit winger who scored Russia's goal in the draw with Algeria during the 2014 tournament, is all but certain to miss the World Cup having damaged his ACL in mid March. Igor Denisov, the Lokomotiv defensive midfielder and Russia captain under Fabio Capello, fell out with Cherchisov years ago at Dynamo Moscow and the manager has refused to pick him while arguments between Cherchisov and the 6ft 5in striker Artem Dzyuba threaten his involvement. CSKA twins Aleksei and Vasily Berezutski retired after Euro 2016 and have refused the manager's entreaties to return to the squad at the age of 35 following the serious knee injuries suffered by Viktor Vasin and Georgi Dzhikiya. Saudi Arabia The only team at the tournament ranked lower than the hosts, it's a fortuitous coincidence for Russia that they were drawn out to play the curtain-raiser. A resounding defeat by Belgium in March was forgivable but their 4-1 loss inIraq the month before has provoked understandable disquiet. Decisions to send the midfielders Yahya Al-Shehri, Salem Al-Dawsari and Fahad Al-Muwallad on loan to Leganes, Villarreal and Levante respectively in January has backfired. None of the national team stalwarts had played a minute of Liga football by the end of March 2018. Uruguay Oscar Tabárez's team looks as powerful as ever, built around the relentless, uncompromising defensive work of Diego Godín, the attacking prowess of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez supplied by Gastón Ramírez and now with the young, athletic Juventus midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur to add drive to the usual steel. Veteran defender Martín Cáceres has a calf injury that had restricted him to only one appearance by the end of March following his transfer from Verona after that dreadful year at Southampton and remains the major doubt. World Cup predictor Group B Iran Ashkan Dejagah, a Bundesliga title-winner with Wolfsburg and fondly remembered by Fulham fans who elected him player of the year in 2013-14, returned to England with Nottingham Forest as a free agent in January but suffered a knee injury the following month that will keep him out until the end of April. The 31-year-old midfielder, who played all three group matches in Brazil four years ago, is Carlos Queiroz's only significant injury worry. Captain Masoud Shojaei has returned to the squad after seven months and has so far overcome opposition from the deputy sports minister and another parliamentarian for playing for Panionios against Maccabi Tel Aviv in a Europa League qualifier. A national team life ban for playing against a representative of a state Iran does not recognise had been proposed but Queiroz ignored the calls. Morocco The African Nations champions qualified without conceding a goal and three-quarters of the defence that earned them their enviable record - Nabil Dirar, Mehdi Benatia and Romain Saiss - are all fit and in impressive form. The versatile Real Madrid prodigy, Achraf Hakimi, however, was withdrawn from the squad for the March friendlies when injured on the first day of training and is likely to miss a few weeks while the midfielder Ait Bennasser, who hurt his thigh while playing for Caen against Angers in March, is not expected to be back on contention until the beginning of May at the earliest. Zouhair Feddal, who plays at left-back for Real Betis, ruptured his Achilles in February and, barring a miracle, will miss the World Cup. England's World Cup 2018 squad - ranked Portugal Renato Sanches, who was so sensational at Euro 2016 that Bayern Munich agreed a deal to sign the teenage midfielder that committed them to spending as much as £72m for him, has endured a wretched run of form and fitness ever since. His latest hamstring injury while on loan at Swansea has kept him sidelined since mid January and the Premier League club sent him back to Munich at the end of March for treatment, admitting he might not return. But, to much surprise, he returned to the matchday squad for the visit of Chelsea on April 28 but didn't get on in the 1-0 defeat. Major concerns persist over the durability of the veteran central defenders - Jose Fonte and Bruno Silva, 34 and 36 respectively - who are currently fit but have had lengthy lay-offs in recent months while the 35-year-old Pepe is nursing a broken toe. Spain No significant injury concerns so far for Julen Lopetegui but the form of Alvaro Morata at Chelsea has been a worry and led to him being left out of the squad for the spring friendlies. Diego Costa, in the rudest of health and spirit at Atlético Madrid, should lead the line which may make a romantic recall for Spain's top-scorer, New York City's David Villa, at the age of 36 far more remote than it seemed last autumn. Cesc Fabregas and Bayern Munich's Javi Martínez have been notable omissions from Lopetegui's squads ever since he took over from Vicente del Bosque in 2016 and while neither are resigned to missing out, recalls at this late stage are extremely unlikely. Group C Australia Bert van Marwijk, appointed in January on a seven-month contract, recalled the goalkeeper Brad Jones after four years out of international football in his first squad and the former Liverpool reserve, now with Feyenoord, has a good chance of making it to Russia in place of Adam Federici, the Bournemouth back-up, who has not played for 15 months after suffering back-to-back knee injuries. Matthew Spiranovic, a free agent since his release by Zhejiang Greentown in February, will pay the price for not heeding former manager Ange Postecoglou who repeatedly warned him that playing in the Chinese second division was not adequate preparation for a World Cup place. Melbourne Victory centre-half Rhys Williams, hoping to make his first World Cup after injury ruled him out of South Africa and Brazil, tore his calf on April 29 and looks like making it third time unlucky. Kaiserslautern's Brandon Borrello ruptured his ACL during a training session in the last week of April and has no chance of making it. Denmark Chelsea's Andreas Christensen and Brentford's Henrik Dalsgaard were sent home early from the squads for the spring friendlies, the former because of 'exhaustion' and the latter excused to spend some time with his newborn daughter. Both have been told that they are certainties for Age Hareide's 23.Central defender Andreas Bjelland has been troubled by an achilles injury but has returned to the Brentford squad while Lasse Vibe, who left Griffin Park in February for the Chinese Super League's Changchun Yatai, is running out of time to prove his fitness and sharpness after heel and hamstring injuries blighted the first half of his season. World Cup 2018 stadiums France Laurent Koscielny will miss the tournament after rupturing his achilles tendon in Arsenal's Europa League semi-final, second leg against Atletico Madrid. Benjamin Mendy has been out since September with a cruciate ligament injury but has been training with Manchester City's first-team squad since the beginning of March and should be back before the end of the season. If the left-back makes it he may go straight into the starting XI given Layvin Kurzawa's recent loss of form at PSG. Florian Thauvin, who has gone from zero to hero on his return from Newcastle to Marseille, should overcome a hamstring injury to make it but squad stalwarts Alexandre Lacazette, Moussa Sissoko and Dimitri Payet may all miss out after disappointing domestic seasons. Djibril Sidibe has injured the meniscus in his right knee and will miss the end of Monaco's season but the right-back hopes to be back in time to make Didier Deschamps' XXIII. Peru First-choice goalkeeper Pedro Gallese had knee surgery to correct a meniscus problem last February and though he is behind schedule to return for his Mexican league club Veracruz, remains confident that he will be ready for the friendly against Scotland on May 29. Veteran striker and captain Paolo Guerrero is currently serving a six-month ban after testing positive for cocaine and other banned drugs following Peru's draw with Argentina last October. Peru will bring their famous kit to the World Cup finals for the first time since 1982 Credit: FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images His suspension, reduced on appeal, ends on May 3 but his second appeal will be heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport before then as he continues to maintain he was the victim of contaminated food. Group D Argentina Ramiro Funes Mori's return to Everton's bench on the last day of March after more than a year out with a knee injury is a fillip to Jorge Sampaoli and his creaking defence. Roma winger Diego Perotti should return from a calf strain by the middle of April but Boca Juniors' playmaker Fernando Gago and centre-forward Dario Benedetto have been ruled out by their club who hope to have them back for pre-season training though neither severe knee-injury victim has given up hope of 11th-hour breakthroughs in their recovery regimes. World Cup Russian host cities you've never heard of Croatia Veterans Danijel Subasic, Dejan Lovren, Marcelo Brozovic, Ivan Perisic, Luka Modric, Nikola Kalinic and Mario Mandzukic all withdrew from last month's two-match tour to the United States to conserve their energies but they are fit and certainties for the squad barring any late setbacks. Ante Rebic, the Eintracht Frankfurt winger, and Fiorentina's defensive midfielder Milan Baldelj have missed games in April with a torn calf and rib injuries respectively but are due back before the end of the month and should take their places in Zlatko Dalic's 23. Iceland The medial ligament injury Gylfi Sigurdsson sustained in his right knee when playing for Everton against Brighton at the beginning of March was expected to end his domestic season while keeping a glimmer of hope alive that he would be fit for Russia. Sam Allardyce said he would personally deliver a 'b---------' to the employee who released a statement saying he was out for eight weeks and countered it by suggesting that the playmaker was a quick healer and may be back before May which gives Heimir Hallgrimsson grounds for optimism. Alfreð Finnbogason, the Augsburg centre-forward, who has been out since the end of January with a calf injury, is expected to make his comeback in mid April. Nigeria Wilfred Ndidi will miss the end of Leicester' season with a hamstring damaged during their walloping by Crystal Palace on April 28. His team-mate Kelechi Iheanacho broke his hand while playing for the Super Eagles during their defeat by Serbia last month but returned to bench duty for Leicester after missing only one Premier League game. Henry Onyekuru, the Everton forward who is spending 2017-18 on loan at Anderlecht, underwent knee ligament surgery in December but insisted he would be in contention to make the squad. On April 2 he returned to first-team training and says he will be ready to play and add to his nine league goals in 19 appearances before the month is out. Group E Brazil Neymar's metatarsal injury on Feb 25 threatened to turn into another bout of national self-flagellation and despondency but the initial prognosis that he would be out for 12 weeks still gives him time to recover and subsequent revisions of his estimated absence that have shaved four weeks off his return date should allow him to find some sharpness, too. Philippe Coutinho's ropey form since moving to Barcelona will not discourage Tite, who will use the Anfield friendly against Croatia at the start of June to reacquaint him with his best days alongside familiar faces in familiar surroundings. Filipe Luis, the Atlético left-back and back-up to Marcelo, fractured his fibula in mid-March but is hopeful of returning should Diego Simeone's team qualify for the Europa League final. Tite has never had much time for David Luiz's qualities and though the centre-back, whose knee injury has kept him out of Chelsea's squad since the middle of February, is striving to put himself in contention, his quest will probably be in vain. Costa Rica Joel Campbell, remarkably still an Arsenal player, injured his ankle while playing on loan for Real Betis at the end of October and has not played since. The forward reported that he was fit at the end of February and has returned to full training so seems likely to make the cut for the squad even if he will be woefully lacking match fitness, not that it did Paolo Rossi much harm in 1982 nor Marco van Basten at Euro 88. New York City left-back Ronald Matarrita has a hamstring injury that has hampered his preparations and Portland Timbers' defensive midfielder David Guzman has missed the past fortnight with a sprained knee sustained on international duty. The state of Neymar's health has become a Brazilian obsession Credit: REUTERS/Stephane Mahe Switzerland Vladimir Petkovic expects Udinese's Valon Behrami to recover from his shoulder injury in a couple of weeks and has no other pressing concerns. Eren Derdiyok. Admir Mehmedi and Xherdan Shaqiri all sat out the recent friendlies (a 1-0 victory over Greece and a 6-0 thrashing of Panama) but should make the final squad when it is announced on May 14. Serbia Matija Nastasic damaged knee ligaments on April 12 playing for Schalke and the best prognosis for the centre-half is a six-week recuperation. Mladen Krstajic, a fine defender for Partizan, Werder Bremen, Schalke and the national team but a rookie coach appointed to this, his first job, only last December, has all his core players fit and only Benfica's Ljubomir Fejsa, the defensive midfielder who has won 10 successive league titles across three countries, suffering from recurring but minor, niggling problems. Fejsa has not played for Serbia since 2016 and would be a back-up only to Nemanja Matic and Luka Milivojevic if he makes the squad but would be a contender for tattoo of the tournament for the chest tableau that commemorates his return from serious injury while playing for Partizan and his later triumphs with Olympiakos and Benfica. ...⚽️❗️....done✔️ #f5 #justdone #stillfresh Obrigado Mareeee���� @maretattoo A post shared by Fejsa Ljubomir & Suzana (@fejsa5) on Mar 25, 2018 at 1:42pm PDT Group F Germany Borussia Monchengladbach's Lars Stindl is out with an ankle injury but Manuel Neuer returned to full goalkeeper training on April 5 after six months out having fractured a metatarsal in his left foot for the third time in a year and undergone surgery to insert a plate to protect the bone. The Bayern Munich and Germany captain has manged only three Bundesliga appearances this season yet, although Joachim Löw has benefited from his absence by exploiting it to give Marc-Andre Ter Stegen valuable international experience, the world champions will go to the wire to include Neuer. Jerome Boateng, though, is a serious doubt after injuring his knee during the first leg of Bayern Munich's Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid. Boateng was injured during Bayern Munich's Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid Credit: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images Marco Reus, who missed the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 with ankle and groin injuries, made his comeback from cruciate ligament surgery in February after eight months out and Borussia Dortmund have nursed his return, allowing him time off to recover from soreness, over the past few weeks. "With Marco," said Löw, "it's important to us that he is brought to the top level carefully and without further pressure and that he gains in stability." Mario Götze, the scorer of the winning goal at Maracana, was left out of the squad for the spring friendlies after a dip in form while his Dortmund team-mate and World Cup final goal-provider Andre Schürrle, finally free of knee and achilles injuries, has impressed Löw sufficiently to reassure him that he still has a chance but has yet to earn a call-up. Mexico Giovani Dos Santos should be back for LA Galaxy by the end of April after his hamstring injury in early March and will resume his place in Mexico's midfield alongside Porto captain Hector Herrera who travelled with the national team for the spring double header against Iceland and Croatia but was sent back to his club for treatment because of an unspecified muscle injury. Starting central defender Carlos Salcedeo broke his collarbone during the defeat by Croatia and had surgery to have it pinned but is expected to return for Eintracht Frankfurt just before the end of the season. Another key defender, Nestor Araujo who plays for Santos Laguna, was also injured in the same match and has had keyhole surgery to repair meniscus damage. He, too, is expected to make a first-team comeback before the squad deadline of May 14. South Korea Shin Tae-yong's greatest concern last month as he prepares for his first tournament since moving up from U-20 manager to secure qualification centred not on fitness but the fatigue of Son Heung-min after a long season and a gruelling buil-up to it. "For most Europe-based players, they are used to getting in shape in August before the new season starts. I'm really worried that Son's form might go down from May, with his concentration waning and him becoming physically exhausted," he said. Former Middlesbrough striker Lee Dong-gook, a member of the France 98 squad at the age of 18, harbours hopes of a place after a recall last September for the final qualifier against Uzbekistan but he has not been picked since. The sitter he missed against Uruguay at the 2010 World Cup haunted him for years but most supporters seem to have forgiven him and would welcome the selection of the K-League's highest scorer. Sweden It would be unfair for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who played no part in qualification having retired after Euro 2016, to overshadow the preparations of the squad in making it to Russia but his possible return, despite his controversial link-up with a betting firm that would seem to preclude him being recalled under Fifa regulations, is dominating their build-up. "Just as with the national team, if I want to play, I’ll play," he said. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has not ruled out a comeback Credit: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong “This is not a question for Fifa, it’s a question for me and what I want.” Janne Andersson has no injury worries with a month to go but the inexperience of all his goalkeepers must be a cause of some disquiet. Robin Olsen performed heroically against Italy in the second leg of the play-off but he has only 16 caps and the manager has tried several alternatives in pursuit of an undisputed No1. Group G Belgium Michy Batshuayi, having scored nine goals in 14 games during a terrific loan spell at Dortmund, left the field on a stretcher on April 15 after sustaining an ankle injury during the derby defeat by Schalke that has ended his season but not his World Cup chances even if they are now very slim indeed. Vincent Kompany's return to form and fitness has removed Roberto Martínez's most long-standing doubt though Christian Benteke's travails in front of goal for Crystal Palace had put his chances of a squad place as a back-up to Romelu Lukaku at serious risk until Batshuayi's injury. Nacer Chadli has missed West Brom's doomed 'fight' against relegation since December with hip and thigh injuries but Albion report that he is ready to return on April 21 after an impressive showing in training. Thibaut Courtois has recovered from the hamstring injury that kept him out of the spring friendlies and Chelsea's defeat by Spurs for whom Toby Alderweireld remains on the peripheries, which must be a worry for Martínez. England Liverpool pair Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joe Gomez miss the tournament through injury but team-mate Nathaniel Clyne is making gradual returns to first-team football and may be a late contender for a squad place. Phil Jones has suffered recurrent hamstring injuries this season and, although he is now fit while Jack Wilshere, who withdrew from the spring squads, remains an outsider as does Ruben Loftus-Cheek who has returned to Palace's side after three months out with an ankle injury and knee pain. Adam Lallana has endured a desperate run with injuries Credit: Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs Nathaniel Chalobah joined the England squad in March to continue his rehabilitation from a fractured knee-cap but is unlikely to play for Watford before the season's end while Daniel Sturridge was out for two months with a hamstring injury that has turned his loan move to West Bromwich into an exorbitant farce. Adam Lallana has gone to South Africa for rehab therapy on his injured hamstring and Gareth Southgate is understood to be willing to give him until May 13 to prove he can make it but that has to be a serious doubt after a couple of injury-wrecked seasons. Panama The World Cup finals debutants have no injuries to report and Hernán Darío Gómez has a full-strength squad of relatively unknown but remarkably experienced players - the 24 men picked for the spring friendlies averaged 59 caps each - ready for Russia. Tunisia Tunisia have suffered the worst blow of all 32 teams to date, losing their playmaker Youssef Msakni, who suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury on April 7 that will keep him out for at least six months. The attacking midfielder, who has 49 caps, tore an anterior ligament playing for his Qatar Stars League club, Al-Duhail, against Al-Sailiya. Nabil Maloul, Tunisia's manager, was asked in March what Msakni's absence would mean when the player could not feature in the spring friendlies because of a minor meniscus problem that required 10 days' rest, he said it would be like Argentina going to Russia without Lionel Messi. Group H Colombia Juan Cuadrado gave Jose Pekerman a scare by injuring his groin back in January and the initial prognosis, that he would be out for at least three months after surgery, possibly six, was discouraging. But the winger made his return for Juventus ahead of schedule last month while Sampdoria's Duvan Zapata, who missed their match with Cagliari on April 28, should also make it back before the end of the season. Japan Turmoil at management level - Akira Nishino replaced Vahid Halilhodzic at the beginning of April - contrasts with relative serenity over options for selection. Second-choice keeper, Masaaki Higashiguchi, fractured his cheekbone on April 21 but is likely to make the World Cup 23 even if he has to play in a face mask for precautionary reasons. Marseille defender Hiroki Sakai was ruled out for three weeks in April with a medial collateral ligament strain in his left knee and misses both legs of their Europa League semifinal against Red Bull Salzburg but is confident of recovering in time to participate in Russia. World Cup 2018 venues Poland Veteran midfielder, the live blogger's friend Jakub Blaszczykowski, made his first start for Hamburg since February on April 28 and should be fit to make a squad that has no major current concerns about its key components. Artur Boruc, who had 60 caps, announced his international retirement last year bur had long since taken the role of third banana behind Lukasz Fabianski and Wojciech Szczesny. Senegal Monaco's fiery forward Keita Balde has been out since April 7 with a hamstring injury but should be back for the St Etienne game on May 12.The principal worry for Aliou Cisse concered his centre-back and vice-captain Kara Mbodji, who has not played since before Christmas following knee surgery for an injury he picked up playing for Anderlecht. After thrice-daily rehab sessions, Kara says he hopes to be involved for their final league game against Club Brugge on May 6.
World Cup 2018 squad guide: Latest group news and updates
Each of the 31 qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup plus the hosts will name their provisional 35 man squads for the tournament by the deadline on May 14, exactly a month before the opening game between Russia and Saudi Arabia on June 14 at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. They will then have until June 4 to cull the numbers down to 23. Those who do not make the cut are likely to be placed on standby in case they are needed to replace any injured players. Replacements can be made at any point until 24 hours before each team's first World Cup game. Here is what we know so far about who is available and who is struggling to make it. Group A Egypt No significant injury worries for Héctor Cúper, not even over the 45-year-old goalkeeper and captain Essam El-Hadary who is firmly on course to become the oldest player in finals history. There are wider concerns over the form of West Brom's shell-shocked Ahmed Hegazi but it is countered by Mohamed Salah's during his outstanding debut season at Liverpool. Russia Stanislav Cherchisov has been tasked with taking the hosts to the last four at least, which will be difficult given their results in a very taxing build-up programme - defeated by Portugal, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and France. Aleksandr Kokorin, the 27-year-old Zenit winger who scored Russia's goal in the draw with Algeria during the 2014 tournament, is all but certain to miss the World Cup having damaged his ACL in mid March. Igor Denisov, the Lokomotiv defensive midfielder and Russia captain under Fabio Capello, fell out with Cherchisov years ago at Dynamo Moscow and the manager has refused to pick him while arguments between Cherchisov and the 6ft 5in striker Artem Dzyuba threaten his involvement. CSKA twins Aleksei and Vasily Berezutski retired after Euro 2016 and have refused the manager's entreaties to return to the squad at the age of 35 following the serious knee injuries suffered by Viktor Vasin and Georgi Dzhikiya. Saudi Arabia The only team at the tournament ranked lower than the hosts, it's a fortuitous coincidence for Russia that they were drawn out to play the curtain-raiser. A resounding defeat by Belgium in March was forgivable but their 4-1 loss inIraq the month before has provoked understandable disquiet. Decisions to send the midfielders Yahya Al-Shehri, Salem Al-Dawsari and Fahad Al-Muwallad on loan to Leganes, Villarreal and Levante respectively in January has backfired. None of the national team stalwarts had played a minute of Liga football by the end of March 2018. Uruguay Oscar Tabárez's team looks as powerful as ever, built around the relentless, uncompromising defensive work of Diego Godín, the attacking prowess of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez supplied by Gastón Ramírez and now with the young, athletic Juventus midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur to add drive to the usual steel. Veteran defender Martín Cáceres has a calf injury that had restricted him to only one appearance by the end of March following his transfer from Verona after that dreadful year at Southampton and remains the major doubt. World Cup predictor Group B Iran Ashkan Dejagah, a Bundesliga title-winner with Wolfsburg and fondly remembered by Fulham fans who elected him player of the year in 2013-14, returned to England with Nottingham Forest as a free agent in January but suffered a knee injury the following month that will keep him out until the end of April. The 31-year-old midfielder, who played all three group matches in Brazil four years ago, is Carlos Queiroz's only significant injury worry. Captain Masoud Shojaei has returned to the squad after seven months and has so far overcome opposition from the deputy sports minister and another parliamentarian for playing for Panionios against Maccabi Tel Aviv in a Europa League qualifier. A national team life ban for playing against a representative of a state Iran does not recognise had been proposed but Queiroz ignored the calls. Morocco The African Nations champions qualified without conceding a goal and three-quarters of the defence that earned them their enviable record - Nabil Dirar, Mehdi Benatia and Romain Saiss - are all fit and in impressive form. The versatile Real Madrid prodigy, Achraf Hakimi, however, was withdrawn from the squad for the March friendlies when injured on the first day of training and is likely to miss a few weeks while the midfielder Ait Bennasser, who hurt his thigh while playing for Caen against Angers in March, is not expected to be back on contention until the beginning of May at the earliest. Zouhair Feddal, who plays at left-back for Real Betis, ruptured his Achilles in February and, barring a miracle, will miss the World Cup. England's World Cup 2018 squad - ranked Portugal Renato Sanches, who was so sensational at Euro 2016 that Bayern Munich agreed a deal to sign the teenage midfielder that committed them to spending as much as £72m for him, has endured a wretched run of form and fitness ever since. His latest hamstring injury while on loan at Swansea has kept him sidelined since mid January and the Premier League club sent him back to Munich at the end of March for treatment, admitting he might not return. But, to much surprise, he returned to the matchday squad for the visit of Chelsea on April 28 but didn't get on in the 1-0 defeat. Major concerns persist over the durability of the veteran central defenders - Jose Fonte and Bruno Silva, 34 and 36 respectively - who are currently fit but have had lengthy lay-offs in recent months while the 35-year-old Pepe is nursing a broken toe. Spain No significant injury concerns so far for Julen Lopetegui but the form of Alvaro Morata at Chelsea has been a worry and led to him being left out of the squad for the spring friendlies. Diego Costa, in the rudest of health and spirit at Atlético Madrid, should lead the line which may make a romantic recall for Spain's top-scorer, New York City's David Villa, at the age of 36 far more remote than it seemed last autumn. Cesc Fabregas and Bayern Munich's Javi Martínez have been notable omissions from Lopetegui's squads ever since he took over from Vicente del Bosque in 2016 and while neither are resigned to missing out, recalls at this late stage are extremely unlikely. Group C Australia Bert van Marwijk, appointed in January on a seven-month contract, recalled the goalkeeper Brad Jones after four years out of international football in his first squad and the former Liverpool reserve, now with Feyenoord, has a good chance of making it to Russia in place of Adam Federici, the Bournemouth back-up, who has not played for 15 months after suffering back-to-back knee injuries. Matthew Spiranovic, a free agent since his release by Zhejiang Greentown in February, will pay the price for not heeding former manager Ange Postecoglou who repeatedly warned him that playing in the Chinese second division was not adequate preparation for a World Cup place. Melbourne Victory centre-half Rhys Williams, hoping to make his first World Cup after injury ruled him out of South Africa and Brazil, tore his calf on April 29 and looks like making it third time unlucky. Kaiserslautern's Brandon Borrello ruptured his ACL during a training session in the last week of April and has no chance of making it. Denmark Chelsea's Andreas Christensen and Brentford's Henrik Dalsgaard were sent home early from the squads for the spring friendlies, the former because of 'exhaustion' and the latter excused to spend some time with his newborn daughter. Both have been told that they are certainties for Age Hareide's 23.Central defender Andreas Bjelland has been troubled by an achilles injury but has returned to the Brentford squad while Lasse Vibe, who left Griffin Park in February for the Chinese Super League's Changchun Yatai, is running out of time to prove his fitness and sharpness after heel and hamstring injuries blighted the first half of his season. World Cup 2018 stadiums France Laurent Koscielny will miss the tournament after rupturing his achilles tendon in Arsenal's Europa League semi-final, second leg against Atletico Madrid. Benjamin Mendy has been out since September with a cruciate ligament injury but has been training with Manchester City's first-team squad since the beginning of March and should be back before the end of the season. If the left-back makes it he may go straight into the starting XI given Layvin Kurzawa's recent loss of form at PSG. Florian Thauvin, who has gone from zero to hero on his return from Newcastle to Marseille, should overcome a hamstring injury to make it but squad stalwarts Alexandre Lacazette, Moussa Sissoko and Dimitri Payet may all miss out after disappointing domestic seasons. Djibril Sidibe has injured the meniscus in his right knee and will miss the end of Monaco's season but the right-back hopes to be back in time to make Didier Deschamps' XXIII. Peru First-choice goalkeeper Pedro Gallese had knee surgery to correct a meniscus problem last February and though he is behind schedule to return for his Mexican league club Veracruz, remains confident that he will be ready for the friendly against Scotland on May 29. Veteran striker and captain Paolo Guerrero is currently serving a six-month ban after testing positive for cocaine and other banned drugs following Peru's draw with Argentina last October. Peru will bring their famous kit to the World Cup finals for the first time since 1982 Credit: FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images His suspension, reduced on appeal, ends on May 3 but his second appeal will be heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport before then as he continues to maintain he was the victim of contaminated food. Group D Argentina Ramiro Funes Mori's return to Everton's bench on the last day of March after more than a year out with a knee injury is a fillip to Jorge Sampaoli and his creaking defence. Roma winger Diego Perotti should return from a calf strain by the middle of April but Boca Juniors' playmaker Fernando Gago and centre-forward Dario Benedetto have been ruled out by their club who hope to have them back for pre-season training though neither severe knee-injury victim has given up hope of 11th-hour breakthroughs in their recovery regimes. World Cup Russian host cities you've never heard of Croatia Veterans Danijel Subasic, Dejan Lovren, Marcelo Brozovic, Ivan Perisic, Luka Modric, Nikola Kalinic and Mario Mandzukic all withdrew from last month's two-match tour to the United States to conserve their energies but they are fit and certainties for the squad barring any late setbacks. Ante Rebic, the Eintracht Frankfurt winger, and Fiorentina's defensive midfielder Milan Baldelj have missed games in April with a torn calf and rib injuries respectively but are due back before the end of the month and should take their places in Zlatko Dalic's 23. Iceland The medial ligament injury Gylfi Sigurdsson sustained in his right knee when playing for Everton against Brighton at the beginning of March was expected to end his domestic season while keeping a glimmer of hope alive that he would be fit for Russia. Sam Allardyce said he would personally deliver a 'b---------' to the employee who released a statement saying he was out for eight weeks and countered it by suggesting that the playmaker was a quick healer and may be back before May which gives Heimir Hallgrimsson grounds for optimism. Alfreð Finnbogason, the Augsburg centre-forward, who has been out since the end of January with a calf injury, is expected to make his comeback in mid April. Nigeria Wilfred Ndidi will miss the end of Leicester' season with a hamstring damaged during their walloping by Crystal Palace on April 28. His team-mate Kelechi Iheanacho broke his hand while playing for the Super Eagles during their defeat by Serbia last month but returned to bench duty for Leicester after missing only one Premier League game. Henry Onyekuru, the Everton forward who is spending 2017-18 on loan at Anderlecht, underwent knee ligament surgery in December but insisted he would be in contention to make the squad. On April 2 he returned to first-team training and says he will be ready to play and add to his nine league goals in 19 appearances before the month is out. Group E Brazil Neymar's metatarsal injury on Feb 25 threatened to turn into another bout of national self-flagellation and despondency but the initial prognosis that he would be out for 12 weeks still gives him time to recover and subsequent revisions of his estimated absence that have shaved four weeks off his return date should allow him to find some sharpness, too. Philippe Coutinho's ropey form since moving to Barcelona will not discourage Tite, who will use the Anfield friendly against Croatia at the start of June to reacquaint him with his best days alongside familiar faces in familiar surroundings. Filipe Luis, the Atlético left-back and back-up to Marcelo, fractured his fibula in mid-March but is hopeful of returning should Diego Simeone's team qualify for the Europa League final. Tite has never had much time for David Luiz's qualities and though the centre-back, whose knee injury has kept him out of Chelsea's squad since the middle of February, is striving to put himself in contention, his quest will probably be in vain. Costa Rica Joel Campbell, remarkably still an Arsenal player, injured his ankle while playing on loan for Real Betis at the end of October and has not played since. The forward reported that he was fit at the end of February and has returned to full training so seems likely to make the cut for the squad even if he will be woefully lacking match fitness, not that it did Paolo Rossi much harm in 1982 nor Marco van Basten at Euro 88. New York City left-back Ronald Matarrita has a hamstring injury that has hampered his preparations and Portland Timbers' defensive midfielder David Guzman has missed the past fortnight with a sprained knee sustained on international duty. The state of Neymar's health has become a Brazilian obsession Credit: REUTERS/Stephane Mahe Switzerland Vladimir Petkovic expects Udinese's Valon Behrami to recover from his shoulder injury in a couple of weeks and has no other pressing concerns. Eren Derdiyok. Admir Mehmedi and Xherdan Shaqiri all sat out the recent friendlies (a 1-0 victory over Greece and a 6-0 thrashing of Panama) but should make the final squad when it is announced on May 14. Serbia Matija Nastasic damaged knee ligaments on April 12 playing for Schalke and the best prognosis for the centre-half is a six-week recuperation. Mladen Krstajic, a fine defender for Partizan, Werder Bremen, Schalke and the national team but a rookie coach appointed to this, his first job, only last December, has all his core players fit and only Benfica's Ljubomir Fejsa, the defensive midfielder who has won 10 successive league titles across three countries, suffering from recurring but minor, niggling problems. Fejsa has not played for Serbia since 2016 and would be a back-up only to Nemanja Matic and Luka Milivojevic if he makes the squad but would be a contender for tattoo of the tournament for the chest tableau that commemorates his return from serious injury while playing for Partizan and his later triumphs with Olympiakos and Benfica. ...⚽️❗️....done✔️ #f5 #justdone #stillfresh Obrigado Mareeee���� @maretattoo A post shared by Fejsa Ljubomir & Suzana (@fejsa5) on Mar 25, 2018 at 1:42pm PDT Group F Germany Borussia Monchengladbach's Lars Stindl is out with an ankle injury but Manuel Neuer returned to full goalkeeper training on April 5 after six months out having fractured a metatarsal in his left foot for the third time in a year and undergone surgery to insert a plate to protect the bone. The Bayern Munich and Germany captain has manged only three Bundesliga appearances this season yet, although Joachim Löw has benefited from his absence by exploiting it to give Marc-Andre Ter Stegen valuable international experience, the world champions will go to the wire to include Neuer. Jerome Boateng, though, is a serious doubt after injuring his knee during the first leg of Bayern Munich's Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid. Boateng was injured during Bayern Munich's Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid Credit: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images Marco Reus, who missed the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 with ankle and groin injuries, made his comeback from cruciate ligament surgery in February after eight months out and Borussia Dortmund have nursed his return, allowing him time off to recover from soreness, over the past few weeks. "With Marco," said Löw, "it's important to us that he is brought to the top level carefully and without further pressure and that he gains in stability." Mario Götze, the scorer of the winning goal at Maracana, was left out of the squad for the spring friendlies after a dip in form while his Dortmund team-mate and World Cup final goal-provider Andre Schürrle, finally free of knee and achilles injuries, has impressed Löw sufficiently to reassure him that he still has a chance but has yet to earn a call-up. Mexico Giovani Dos Santos should be back for LA Galaxy by the end of April after his hamstring injury in early March and will resume his place in Mexico's midfield alongside Porto captain Hector Herrera who travelled with the national team for the spring double header against Iceland and Croatia but was sent back to his club for treatment because of an unspecified muscle injury. Starting central defender Carlos Salcedeo broke his collarbone during the defeat by Croatia and had surgery to have it pinned but is expected to return for Eintracht Frankfurt just before the end of the season. Another key defender, Nestor Araujo who plays for Santos Laguna, was also injured in the same match and has had keyhole surgery to repair meniscus damage. He, too, is expected to make a first-team comeback before the squad deadline of May 14. South Korea Shin Tae-yong's greatest concern last month as he prepares for his first tournament since moving up from U-20 manager to secure qualification centred not on fitness but the fatigue of Son Heung-min after a long season and a gruelling buil-up to it. "For most Europe-based players, they are used to getting in shape in August before the new season starts. I'm really worried that Son's form might go down from May, with his concentration waning and him becoming physically exhausted," he said. Former Middlesbrough striker Lee Dong-gook, a member of the France 98 squad at the age of 18, harbours hopes of a place after a recall last September for the final qualifier against Uzbekistan but he has not been picked since. The sitter he missed against Uruguay at the 2010 World Cup haunted him for years but most supporters seem to have forgiven him and would welcome the selection of the K-League's highest scorer. Sweden It would be unfair for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who played no part in qualification having retired after Euro 2016, to overshadow the preparations of the squad in making it to Russia but his possible return, despite his controversial link-up with a betting firm that would seem to preclude him being recalled under Fifa regulations, is dominating their build-up. "Just as with the national team, if I want to play, I’ll play," he said. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has not ruled out a comeback Credit: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong “This is not a question for Fifa, it’s a question for me and what I want.” Janne Andersson has no injury worries with a month to go but the inexperience of all his goalkeepers must be a cause of some disquiet. Robin Olsen performed heroically against Italy in the second leg of the play-off but he has only 16 caps and the manager has tried several alternatives in pursuit of an undisputed No1. Group G Belgium Michy Batshuayi, having scored nine goals in 14 games during a terrific loan spell at Dortmund, left the field on a stretcher on April 15 after sustaining an ankle injury during the derby defeat by Schalke that has ended his season but not his World Cup chances even if they are now very slim indeed. Vincent Kompany's return to form and fitness has removed Roberto Martínez's most long-standing doubt though Christian Benteke's travails in front of goal for Crystal Palace had put his chances of a squad place as a back-up to Romelu Lukaku at serious risk until Batshuayi's injury. Nacer Chadli has missed West Brom's doomed 'fight' against relegation since December with hip and thigh injuries but Albion report that he is ready to return on April 21 after an impressive showing in training. Thibaut Courtois has recovered from the hamstring injury that kept him out of the spring friendlies and Chelsea's defeat by Spurs for whom Toby Alderweireld remains on the peripheries, which must be a worry for Martínez. England Liverpool pair Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joe Gomez miss the tournament through injury but team-mate Nathaniel Clyne is making gradual returns to first-team football and may be a late contender for a squad place. Phil Jones has suffered recurrent hamstring injuries this season and, although he is now fit while Jack Wilshere, who withdrew from the spring squads, remains an outsider as does Ruben Loftus-Cheek who has returned to Palace's side after three months out with an ankle injury and knee pain. Adam Lallana has endured a desperate run with injuries Credit: Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs Nathaniel Chalobah joined the England squad in March to continue his rehabilitation from a fractured knee-cap but is unlikely to play for Watford before the season's end while Daniel Sturridge was out for two months with a hamstring injury that has turned his loan move to West Bromwich into an exorbitant farce. Adam Lallana has gone to South Africa for rehab therapy on his injured hamstring and Gareth Southgate is understood to be willing to give him until May 13 to prove he can make it but that has to be a serious doubt after a couple of injury-wrecked seasons. Panama The World Cup finals debutants have no injuries to report and Hernán Darío Gómez has a full-strength squad of relatively unknown but remarkably experienced players - the 24 men picked for the spring friendlies averaged 59 caps each - ready for Russia. Tunisia Tunisia have suffered the worst blow of all 32 teams to date, losing their playmaker Youssef Msakni, who suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury on April 7 that will keep him out for at least six months. The attacking midfielder, who has 49 caps, tore an anterior ligament playing for his Qatar Stars League club, Al-Duhail, against Al-Sailiya. Nabil Maloul, Tunisia's manager, was asked in March what Msakni's absence would mean when the player could not feature in the spring friendlies because of a minor meniscus problem that required 10 days' rest, he said it would be like Argentina going to Russia without Lionel Messi. Group H Colombia Juan Cuadrado gave Jose Pekerman a scare by injuring his groin back in January and the initial prognosis, that he would be out for at least three months after surgery, possibly six, was discouraging. But the winger made his return for Juventus ahead of schedule last month while Sampdoria's Duvan Zapata, who missed their match with Cagliari on April 28, should also make it back before the end of the season. Japan Turmoil at management level - Akira Nishino replaced Vahid Halilhodzic at the beginning of April - contrasts with relative serenity over options for selection. Second-choice keeper, Masaaki Higashiguchi, fractured his cheekbone on April 21 but is likely to make the World Cup 23 even if he has to play in a face mask for precautionary reasons. Marseille defender Hiroki Sakai was ruled out for three weeks in April with a medial collateral ligament strain in his left knee and misses both legs of their Europa League semifinal against Red Bull Salzbur