The task is easy for Aitor Karanka and Middlesbrough, avoid defeat against Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday and they are back in the Premier League. While this sounds fairly straightforward on paper, it will be a very difficult game. Like Boro, Brighton can also secure promotion back to the top flight on Saturday if they come away with three points from the Riverside Stadium. Either way, the race for the top two is still firmly in the balance in what is widely regarded as the greatest and most exciting season in Championship history.
Brighton’s 1-1 draw against Derby County on Monday afternoon kept them in the race for the title, but it also conceded an initiative to Boro- Aitor Karanka’s side have a better goal difference, meaning that a point will be enough for them to condemn the Seagulls to the playoffs. Should they have beaten Derby, Brighton would’ve been in Boro’s shoes- only a point required to secure automatic promotion. Chris Hughton’s side will now also have to do without the services of Lewis Dunk, who was sent off in the clash against the Rams.
Burnley’s 1-0 win over Queens Park Rangers yesterday evening guaranteed Sean Dyche’s side promotion and the Clarets will win the league if they beat already relegated Charlton Athletic this weekend. That may not be as straightforward, especially as the Addicks are playing freely and without pressure – as shown during Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Leeds United at Elland Road.
At the time of writing this article, things are incredibly tight at the top of the Championship. If there was ever a must-win game, it’s the one between Middlesbrough and Brighton this weekend. With so much at stake for both clubs, neither can afford to slip up – especially as a defeat now could be detrimental to their confidence ahead of the playoffs. Right now, Boro are priced at 21/20 to beat Chris Hughton’s side in the Championship betting markets and Karanka’s men will fancy their chances of maintaining their incredible home form in Saturday’s clash. If nothing else, the three-way battle at the top of the Championship has been a great advertisement for English football. Whether it’s Boro or Brighton who join Burnley in getting promoted, the Premier League will be gaining two fantastic sides and the third could well secure their place in the top flight via the playoffs. It isn’t ideal for teams to slip into the postseason battle – as Middlesbrough will tell you from last year’s defeat to Norwich City – but at least then you still have another stab at getting to the Premier League. After all, that’s all these teams are focused on right now. Nobody is thinking about the playoffs just yet.
And now a 46-match season will all go down to 90 minutes of football. If Middlesbrough, who suffered relegation from the Premier League in 2009, perform at their best, they should be good enough to beat Brighton. That is a result that would see Boro clinch one of the automatic promotion spots. Anything less is likely to condemn Karanka’s men to the lottery of the playoffs and Boro fans don’t need to tell you just how unforgiving the postseason can be.
Middlesbrough v Brighton & Hove Albion
Venue: Riverside Stadium (7 May, 2016)