Middlesbrough v Burton Albion: History offers extra incentive for Boro to make progress

THE CHRISTMAS television schedules that have been announced will do well to rival the drama of events at Middlesbrough in recent seasons.

Middlesbrough manager Tony Pulis (Picture: Richard Sellers/PA Wire).

Tidings of comfort and joy have arrived periodically although there was little cause for merriment for then Boro chief Garry Monk just under 12 months ago.

He was not afforded the luxury of basking in the glow of Boro’s win at Sheffield Wednesday on an infamous afternoon at Hillsborough on December 23, 2017. Quite the opposite, in fact.

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Just a few hours later he returned to his Yorkshire home and was informed by chairman Steve Gibson of the club’s decision to dispense with his services.

His replacement Tony Pulis was announced as Boro’s new manager on Boxing Day – and just as December proved pivotal, for contrasting reasons, for his two permanent predecessors Monk and Aitor Karanka, so this festive season is assuming plenty of importance for the Welshman.

A run of three wins in 11 league games means that Boro are minding the gap not only between themselves and the play-off chasing pack, but also the ground to be made up on the top two.

Some insipid attacking displays, which have proved as stodgy as a bad Christmas pudding, have added to the sense of angst, heightening the importance of tonight’s Carabao Cup quarter-final with League One side Burton.

The record books do at least provide some succour.

On the two previous occasions that second-tier Boro have reached the semi-finals of the League Cup or beyond promotion to the top flight has followed – in 1991-92 under Lennie Lawrence and in 1997-98 when Bryan Robson was at the helm.

For Pulis, using tonight’s tie to kickstart the acquisition of momentum will be at the front of his mind after watching his side labour in a four-match winless streak.

Should Boro continue to underwhelm there is a danger they will find themselves in a similar position to that which they were in under Monk when he was axed.

There is no suggestion that the vultures are circling above Pulis, who has spoken consistently – and with conviction – about Boro’s situation.

After the club failed to land their wing targets to help mitigate for the summer departure of Adama Traore, Boro’s manager has not been backwards in coming forwards about the need to remedy that situation in January.

For the time being at least Boro must make do and mend with the likes of young wingers Lewis Wing and Marcus Tavernier and forgotten striker Ashley Fletcher likely to be given a chance to impress this evening.

Martin Braithwaite, who has found himself out of Pulis’s plans in Boro’s last two matches, will also be involved tonight, the Riverside chief has confirmed.

The Danish international forward, linked with a shock new year move to Championship rivals Swansea City, was not involved in Boro’s weekend loss at QPR, an offensively anaemic showing that saw the visitors muster just one shot on target.

There is also unease at the other end of the pitch where Boro’s traditionally Scrooge-like defence have erred in recent weeks in conceding seven goals in their past four outings – after shipping just nine in their first 18 league matches of 2018-19.

It is all a far cry from the Teesside club’s head-turning form during their last promotion odyssey under Karanka in 2015-16 when Boro did not concede a Championship goal in five matches in December 2015 en route to keeping an all-time club record of nine clean sheets in the league.

Rediscovering those stingy traits, alongside some attacking zeal, is imperative with a home quarter-final against a lower-division opponent representing an opportunity that Boro dare not pass up this evening.

Last six games: Middlesbrough WWDLDL Burton LWLLWL.

Referee: M Oliver (Northumberland).

Last time: Middlesbrough 2 Burton 0; August 15, 2017; Championship.