Middlesbrough v Sunderland: Derby win is distant memory for Steve Agnew and Boro

STEVE AGNEW will send Middlesbrough into Wednesday night's Premier League relegation clash with derby rivals Sunderland admitting he did not expect the season to come to this.
Middlesbrough goalkeeper Brad Guzan denies Sunderlands Donald Love in Boros August win at the Stadium of Light (Picture: PA).Middlesbrough goalkeeper Brad Guzan denies Sunderlands Donald Love in Boros August win at the Stadium of Light (Picture: PA).
Middlesbrough goalkeeper Brad Guzan denies Sunderlands Donald Love in Boros August win at the Stadium of Light (Picture: PA).

Back on August 21, promoted Boro collected three points for the first time since their return to the top flight when they beat the Black Cats 2-1 at the Stadium of Light.

They have won only three league games since, however, and none since December 17 to leave themselves nine points adrift of safety with only 15 more available.

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Aitor Karanka, the head coach who guided the club back into the big time, has been replaced in the short term by former Sunderland midfielder Agnew, and he knows time is running out fast, particularly in the wake of Saturday’s 4-0 drubbing at Bournemouth.

“Back in August, it was a terrific performance and we thoroughly deserved to win the game,” Agnew said.

“Moving on from August to now, April, of course there’s lots of negativity towards the second half of the season and we haven’t got the wins that we needed, so it’s a massive disappointment.

“But we have to remain focused and we have to enjoy the challenge ahead, and that’s what we will do (tonight).

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“The first thing is we need the three points; secondly, the players are determined to put on a show for the supporters; and thirdly, there has to be a reaction after the disappointment of Saturday.

“We have to win the game and that’s what we will be setting out to do. Three points is everything we need (tonight) and that’s the target.”

The Black Cats are the only Premier League club worse off than Boro – they have three points fewer, albeit with a game in hand – and defeat for either at the Riverside Stadium would edge them to within touching distance of the trapdoor.

Agnew admits confidence is low on Teesside, but firmly believes there is still hope.

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He said: “Well, if you look at any team that hasn’t won since December, then obviously the confidence is in the balance. We have to keep working away at it, and we have, and will continue to do that.

“What I have seen from Sunday is a very focused group that is determined to put a show on for the supporters in a north-east derby.

“There will be 30,000 Teessiders in the stadium with a good following from Sunderland, so the passion and the energy that will come from the Middlesbrough fans is everything that the players will need,” he added.

Boro midfielder Gaston Ramirez is missing tonight through suspension.

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The Uruguay international will sit out after being sent off for a second bookable offence at Bournemouth, and will be joined on the sidelines by goalkeeper Victor Valdes, who is struggling to shake of a rib injury.

However, former Sunderland player Grant Leadbitter has a chance of being involved after returning to training following a hamstring problem, as does fellow midfielder Marten de Roon (ankle).

Sunderland manager David Moyes is refusing to accept that relegation is inevitable as he prepares for the do-or-die derby trip to Boro.

The Black Cats are 12 points adrift of safety with only 18 left to play for, and knowing defeat could prove all but fatal to their hopes of avoiding relegation from the Premier League.

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However, Moyes, who celebrated his 54th birthday yesterday, remains convinced that, despite the odds being stacked heavily against them, they have a genuine chance of pulling off perhaps their greatest escape yet.

He said: “There’s still a chance and while there’s a chance, we’re going to try to take it. That chance comes at Middlesbrough and we will try to take our chance.

“If we can take our chance there, then we will have another chance against Bournemouth on Saturday.

“We’re not stupid, but we are in there fighting and we still think we have got a good chance.”

Moyes was remaining tight-lipped over an injury concern.

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He is assessing one player, but declined to name him, while full-back Bryan Oviedo (hamstring) and long-term absentees Paddy McNair and Duncan Watmore (both knee) – the latter of whom may require a second operation – remain on the sidelines. Midfielder Sebastian Larsson serves the second leg of his three-match ban, but defender Billy Jones has returned to training after suffering concussion during the draw with West Ham United last time out.

Realistically, Sunderland may have to win all six of their remaining games if they are to stand any chance of avoiding the drop, although Moyes is not allowing himself to look very much further than the 90 minutes at the Riverside Stadium.

Moyes said: “Look, we don’t have enough games left to think that we can let the games slip by. We are well aware of that.”

Last six games: Middlesbrough LDLDLL Sunderland LDLLLD.

Referee: M Dean (Wirral).

Last time: Middlesbrough 1 Sunderland 2; February 8, 2012; FA Cup.