13 February 2015

Birmingham. Bradford. Blackburn. Bayern...Boro?

Over the last few years, we've had more than our fair share of run-ins with lower sides who have given us more than a run for our money. Heck, they've taken the money and run. In 2011, Birmingham cruelly snatched away the League Cup. In 2012, it was Bradford's turn, this time in the League Cup semifinal. Let's add in the 2013 FA Cup fourth-round scare we got from Brighton; a few weeks after that, in the fifth round, Blackburn knocked us out. Collectively, we could call them the Killer B's. The B-List. Could Middlesbrough—Boro—become an honorary member on Sunday?

We've had some rough draws over the last few years in almost all of the competitions, whether they range from the lowly League Cup to the mightly Champions League: the aforementioned Bayern (twice). Borussia Dortmund in the 2012-13 Champions League group-stage, and them again along with Napoli in the 2013-14 Group of Death. Chelsea in last season's League Cup. Almost the entire 2014 FA Cup. Southampton in this year's League Cup, before anyone really knew how good Southampton would be ("we lost to Southampton before losing to Southampton was cool!" Meh. Doesn't quite work as a rallying cry yet).

Finally, after several years of drawing some intimidating opponents, we've drawn a few "softer" ones, such as the aforementioned Brighton, but also down-on-their-luck Hull, and, in the Champions League, a Falcao-less AS Monaco. Progress, in other words, has seemed assured. This weekend, we'll face Boro when we might have drawn in-form Liverpool (with just one loss in their last 14 outings, and that a hotly contested one against Chelsea in the League Cup) or Man U (with just one loss in their last 17 outings, to Southampton...). Are the cup-draw fairies finally smiling on Arsenal, or do they just have a twisted sense of humour? Yes, we've dodged Blackburn and Bradford, who face Stoke and Sunderland, respectively, but we'll come up against a wolf in sheep's clothing in Middlesbrough. They may not qualify for the B-List by their proper name, but we'd do well to be wary of them all the same.

After all, they did just dismantle Man City at the Etihad in this competition's fourth round, they sit atop the Championship, and they've conceded a league-lowest 20 goals to date. Anyone want to place bets on whether they'll be a bit tougher to beat than lowly Leicester, sitting last in the Prem? On paper, of course, we're supposed to trounce Boro, but if these competitions were played on paper, well, we wouldn't have to play on the pitch.

Make no mistake: Middlesbrough will hardly be content to play the role of countrified rubes who show up and goggle at the tall buildings and sophisticated people of London. They mean business. Our own lacklustre form in our last two outings should serve warning enough that we'd better be on our best behavior. Membership in the B-list might ordinarily be restricted to those clubs whose names officially start with a B, but I'm sure they'd be willing to admit Middlesbrough should the Smoggies upend us as they did Man City.

Let's hope we can repeat if not improve on the last time we faced this club—a 2-0 win way back in 2009.  In that match, a 19-year old Theo Walcott had a fair few chances at finding the back of the net but was spurned each time. Something tells me he'll help us forget those wasted moments, not to mention the wasted chances against those other B-list clubs...