Middlesbrough are firmly in the promotion mix up this season.
We spoke to Dominic Shaw, who covers the club’s fortunes for Teeside Live, who says manager Neil Warnock has been looking forward to this rematch ever since having run Norwich close at the Riverside Stadium in late November.
Canaries.co.uk: Middlesbrough are currently three points outside the play-off places, how do you view their promotion chances at the moment?
DS: Neil Warnock insists his side will come into their own at the business end of the season and with his experience and success, who are we to argue? Boro are undoubtedly in the mix on merit. Indeed, Warnock has been left to wonder what might have been on several occasions this season when Boro have let points slip. Boro certainly haven't been outclassed at any stage and will believe there’s nothing to fear as they look ahead to the run-in.
Canaries.co.uk: Results have been inconsistent of late, but what have the performances been like?
DS: Inconsistency is a concern. Warnock made the point last week that his side need to learn how to draw games. He’s said it on several occasions this season, if you can’t win, don’t lose. But this is a very young and inexperienced Boro side and naivety has cost them at times. Only on a couple of occasions this season have Boro really failed to turn up for games.
Canaries.co.uk: Middlesbrough have been very impressive from a defensive point of view. How important has Dael Fry been to that defensive record and how much of a miss will he be if he can’t start the game because of the eye injury he picked up at Blackburn?
DS: Both Dael Fry and Paddy McNair have been immense at the back. Fry has been a class act in the making for a number of years but hasn’t been helped by injuries and an unsettled back line in recent campaigns. He’s been outstanding this season and thankfully the nasty-looking injury suffered against Blackburn wasn’t as bad as first feared. Alongside him, McNair has been immaculate with Warnock recently saying the Northern Ireland international is the best player he’s ever managed! A word too for full-backs Anfernee Dijksteel and Marc Bola, who have both been transformed under the manager.
Canaries.co.uk: Chuba Akpom and Britt Assombalonga have both had run as the main striker this season. Who do you think Neil Warnock is likely to favour for that spot at Carrow Road?
DS: Tough one. Neither have made it impossible for the manager to leave them out so far this season. Both have shown their class in flashes but have been inconsistent. Ashley Fletcher is back in the mix now after a long injury lay-off.
Warnock has stressed the need for caution there but also revealed a couple of weeks ago that he’s challenged Fletcher to finish the season as top scorer despite the fact he’s missed four months of the campaign!
Canaries.co.uk: Middlesbrough were very unfortunate not to come away with a point from the match earlier this season. How did you view that game in late November?
DS: Despite defeat, which was very hard to take, Boro took heart from their display that day and the fact they matched the team who have proved they’re the best in the division. For a couple of weeks now, Warnock has been stressing how much he’s looking forward to the Norwich game. I think he really fancies a good crack at the leaders to see how his team fare.
Canaries.co.uk: Middlesbrough are doing a lot better this season than last. What specifically has Neil Warnock done to turn things around so dramatically?
DS: First things first Warnock went back to basics and made Boro hard to beat again. But most impressive is his man management and his ability to get a tune out of individuals. Players such as Bola, Dijksteel, McNair, Fry, (Jonny) Howson, (George) Saville, (Marcus) Tavernier are all in career-best form, or not far away. He’s an excellent reader of a player and what makes them tick.
Canaries.co.uk: He is a very popular manager, with the fans, at all the clubs he goes to, but what is Neil Warnock like to deal with from a media point of view?
DS: Superb. When Boro's Boxing Day game against Rotherham was postponed, we expected the pre-match press conference to go with it. But Warnock, realising the press suddenly had five days without a game to fill, said he'd still speak to the local media. He spent an hour with us talking about everything from Christmas shopping to transfers to Bob Mortimer! He gets that the media have a job to do. He’s been brilliant.
Canaries.co.uk: Could there be any new arrivals before Saturday, with the transfer window still open?
DS: Early this week, Boro were dealt a double blow when Premier League clubs pulled the plug on two loan moves that were all but agreed. That was a major setback for Warnock, who has stressed the need to add to his thin squad. At the time of writing, he's still hopeful of bringing in a winger and would also like a forward and defender.
Canaries.co.uk: And finally, how do you think he will approach the game tactically at Carrow Road?
DS: Barring any injury setbacks this week, I'd expect Boro to start with a sturdy midfield three of Jonny Howson, George Saville and Sam Morsy, with two wide forwards in support of the striker.