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Fan Focus: Middlesbrough fan predicts today’s Sunderland v Boro game will end 2-1 - but to whom?

Rob Nichols from long-standing Middlesbrough fanzine ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ joins us for the third time this season to discuss Sunderland v Boro, Tony Pulis and why he thinks it might actually be a close game this afternoon.

Middlesbrough v Brighton - The Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

RF: When we spoke ahead of our cup clash in January, you were hoping that Tony Pulis would get you organised and get the best out of your squad. How’s things going with the new gaffer?

RN: We are not there yet. We have organised from the back and no longer let in silly goals - except for away at Cardiff last week! The midfield is far stronger and everyone seems much more aware of the set up, the plan and their role in it.

Scoring goals has been a big problem and with it a lack of consistency. So it’s certainly still a work in progress.

Middlesbrough v Brighton and Hove Albion - The Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

RF: How do you see your season finishing now that we’re getting towards the business end? The play offs certainly look a possibility for the Boro.

RN: The next few games will be very important indeed. We beat Hull at home on Tuesday and following Sunderland on Saturday, we play Birmingham City away and then Leeds at home - all teams significantly below us in the league (we have not done so well against teams above us).

We need to go unbeaten through those games and drop the minimum points, then we should enter the play off places, obviously the task then will be to stay there until the end of the season but getting into the top six will be a massive boost for everyone.

RF: Ashley Fletcher hasn’t exactly set the world alight in his first few games, including missing a couple of sitters against Bristol City & Bolton. Can you give us any reason to be optimistic about our loanee?

RN: Fletcher still a very young, especially for a centre forward but has already shown enormous promise, especially on his loan spell from West Ham at Barnsley.

As well as his height, he has pace, is strong in the air and has a knack of arriving in the right areas. Confidence and inexperience are really holding him back. A run of games at Sunderland could make a massive difference to him. He can unsettle defences but needs to be far calmer and only the game time will allow him to really click in front of goal.

Middlesbrough v Brighton and Hove Albion - The Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

RF: Who’s in good form for you at the minute? Anyone in particular us Sunderland fans should be worried about?

RN: Adama Traore is on fire at the moment. Under Tony Pulis all the potential of his searing pace and bullish strength have been harnessed and focussed for the team. He still makes those rocket propelled runs but now has the confidence to know his pace buys him the time to think about an end product.

With 3 recent goals to his name, Traore has the confidence to shoot himself as well as the ability to unlock defences with a telling pass. Be afraid of Traore, he is very special indeed.

RF: And how about Sunderland? Anyone you’ll be wary of, despite the fact we haven’t scored against you in two attempts?

RN: I am most fearful of the local rivals factor, in that the atmosphere around these games can make them unpredictable and players can suddenly get inspired to be heroes or hide as zeroes.

In Aiden McGeady you have someone capable of a moment’s brilliance and that could be all it takes. The youngsters John Maja and Joel Asoro showed enormous ability when they came into the side at the end of last year. Lee Cattermole is always fired up when we meet so am not expecting anyone to get an easy passage through the midfield. It won’t be easy.

RF: How do you expect Tony Pulis to approach this game and what do you think his starting eleven will be?

RN: Pulis will set up the team to be combative and work the ball forward quickly. Expect plenty of long throws and set pieces. Ryan Shotton will even bring his own towel!

We will give it to Traore whenever possible for him to lead the charge and look to hit you hard on the break. If we score expect us to sit back and sit on the lead in the second half. We will then by living on our nerves in the away end.

We don’t think there will be many changes to the last two named sides but hopefully Ben Gibson is able to return after illness. We should start with Randolph in goal, Shotton and Friend at full backs, Gibson and Ayala the experienced centre back pairing. Former Sunderland Grant Leadbitter skipper in the middle, partnered by either Mo Besic or Jonny Howson. Stewart Downing will probably try and pull the strings operating behind Rudy Gestede, with Adama Traore on the right and Patrick Bamford moving into the box from the left and hoping to emulate Stuani’s goals from last year.

Middlesbrough v Sunderland - The Emirates FA Cup Third Round Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

RF: Finally, give us a prediction please?

RN: These games always seem to be tight and I expect the same today.

2-1 to Boro is my predicted outcome, it is rare for anyone to have a two goal cushion in this fixture.

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