Middlesbrough will go out all guns blazing to keep their flicking play-off hopes alive in three tough tussles against teams above them in the Championship table.
“Attack is the best form of defence,” said Boro boss Neil Warnock ahead of the decisive run that could end the season – or set up a quite thrilling finale.
Boro, in ninth place kick-off a do-or-die Easter weekend away at Jonathan Woodgate’s Bournemouth, three points and two places above, knowing that defeat could extinguish the flame (KO 3pm, Friday).
Then on Monday they host second placed Watford at the Riverside with the Hornets desperate to cement an automatic promotion spot (KO 12.30pm).
And, if they come through those two fixtures still in with a shout they face surprise package Barnsley, currently fifth next Saturday.
Boro have slipped from play-off contenders, to hopefuls and are now outsiders after a limp 1-0 defeat to Millwall last time out. But Warnock believes his side can rise to the challenge in these crunch games.
“Bournemouth and Watford have the best two squads and Barnsley have got the best form right now so it won’t be easy,” he said. “If you saw Bournemouth against Swansea they were like Real Madrid. Jonathan is very lucky to have that squad.
“No-one is giving us a chance now so let’s go out and give it a crack. That’s what I’ve told the lads: have a go.
“I’d like to have played them with a full squad but we have to get on with it. We’ll have a go. We’re the underdogs but I want to give them a game. I’d rather go down four of five than go out with a damp squib.”
The Boro boss hinted that the squad had picked up a couple of injuries among his defenders in training during the international break and that had switched his tactical approach to a more assertive one.
“You’ll see from my team selection that’s what I want to do,” he explained. “Looking round the squad yesterday we are a bit thin but we just have to work with what we’ve got and give it our best shot.
“We’ve got a couple more knocks but we’ll look at that later. I can only concentrate on what we’ve got and we’ll have to find some way to cater with it.”
That could mean he has to press Paddy McNair and George Saville into action. The midfield duo were in action with Northern Ireland during the international break and could do with a breather.
Instead the pair both look set to be thrown into action less than 48 hours after playing in a 0-0 draw with Bulgaria on Wednesday night, a game in which McNair took a bit of a battering.
“I think the trainer was on too him four times. There was a clash of heads when I had my head in my mouth,” said Warnock. “I didn’t want to play either of them if I didn’t have to but it looks like I may have to.”
Meanwhile Bournemouth boss Woodgate insists there will be no sentiment when he takes on his former club.
The former England defender was a regular as a young fan at Ayresome Park, played for the club twice and was first a coach then the manager before being axed and replaced by Warnock last June.
“There will be no emotion,” he said. “I just have to get on with it. I need to be cold when I’m out there, and make the right decisions in the game. There will be no emotion attached.
“We know what type of game it’s going to be, we know how Neil sets his sides up, they’re difficult to beat and have some good players. I have a lot of respect for Middlesbrough Football Club, they’re doing well and they’re having a good season with a manager who has won eight promotions but I want Bournemouth to win at the end of the day.”
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