Late surge leaves Boro heartbroken

It only took one lapse in concentration. After nearly 90 minutes of solid defence, warding off attack after attack and keeping out complex passing moves, the equaliser came from one of the simplest attacks of the night. Desperation had begun to set in for Manchester United, as Middlesbrough threatened to end a year of upsets with a surprise of their own. Eric Bailly heaved the ball forward, managing to hit Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the edge of the box. He flicked on a header, and Anthony Martial rammed it home to level the scores.

Seconds later, they had taken the lead. After Gaston Ramirez was denied a penalty at the other end, Juan Mata set up Paul Pogba, finding space to cross and hitting the Frenchman with pinpoint accuracy. The header went in to the top corner, leaving Victor Valdes with no chance. It was devastating for Boro, as the game was turned on its head in a dramatic couple of minutes.

United had been the better side. From the start, they had gained a hold over possession and they were creating opportunities. Pogba hit the post with a bicycle kick, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan was everywhere as he created chances for himself and others. It was, however, a shocking decision which gave Boro a massive let-off. Martial was the spark, first hitting the post from long range before collecting the ball and weaving his way into the box. He crossed it, and Ibrahimovic only had to extend his leg to get the ball into the back of the net.

Then the controversy began. Valdes went down, and referee Lee Mason determined that Ibrahimovic had fouled him as the two collided following the goal. United were in disbelief, but the decision stood. Boro survived. As the second half began, the chances started to come a little more readily. Ibrahimovic was denied at close range by Valdes. Pogba tried another bicycle kick, with much less success. Mkhitaryan was through, but offside. Then, after being denied on so many occasions, it was United who went behind. Calum Chambers put in a good cross for Alvaro Negredo, whose header into the path of Grant Leadbitter was perfect. The ball was struck first-time, and it left David de Gea with no chance. United’s recurring nightmare seemed to be happening again.

The emotional rollercoaster of a game was not yet over. There was controversy, as Marcus Rashford was denied what appeared to be a clear penalty after he tangled with Bernardo Espinosa. There was some excellent goalkeeping, and a brilliant cameo off the bench from Rashford. In the end, however, it was Manchester United who dominated, and Manchester United who were deserved winners thanks to their late surge.

Despite this, Boro did create some chances thanks to the explosive pace of Adama Traore, who was at his dynamic best. A bad decision from Traore proved costly a couple of minutes in, as a goal scoring opportunity on the break was missed. They could have scored again a little while later when Traore first beat Daley Blind to the ball before running around him and managing to slip past Chris Smalling in an exceptional display of speed. The cross left George Friend with an open goal, but the controlling touch proved costly.

In the end, Boro were fighting an uphill battle from the start, and nothing could change that for them. They came close, but ultimately they left disappointed, and desperately short on points heading into the new year. United, on the other hand, enter the new year with confidence after a string of victories, and they will be desperate to continue in their current vein of form and try to make an impact on the top four.

Manchester – Old Trafford
Manchester United 2 (Martial 85, Pogba 86)
Middlesbrough 1 (Leadbitter 67)
Referee: Lee Mason
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Valencia, Bailly, Smalling (Rashford 72), Blind (Rojo 64); Fellaini (Mata 64), Herrera; Mkhitaryan, Pogba, Martial; Ibrahimovic.
Middlesbrough (4-1-4-1): Valdes – Chambers, Espinosa, Gibson, Friend; Leadbitter (Clayton 78); Traore (Fabio 82), Forshaw, de Roon, Downing (Ramirez 63); Negredo.

Top 5
1. Anthony Martial (Manchester United)
Martial was in top form throughout, wreaking havoc on the left wing and proving a nightmare for Calum Chambers. He was able to work his way into dangerous positions with his excellent skill on the ball, and he scored the equaliser with a very nice finish.
2. Victor Valdes (Middlesbrough)
Valdes kept Boro in the game with some incredible saves, and until United’s last burst it looked as if he was going to win it for them. His positioning was very good throughout, and his clean hands did not allow United to capitalise on his mistakes.
3. Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Manchester United)
Mkhitaryan was in top form, picking out teammates in good positions and cutting inside to provide a big threat from the right wing. He was unlucky not to score on a few occasions, and he will look to continue his good form into the new year.
4. Adama Traore (Middlesbrough)
Traore was Boro’s main attacking weapon, displaying incredible speed and, at times, finesse. He was too fast for anyone on the pitch, and he left Blind for dead on a few occasions. He was unlucky not to create a goal for his side, but he will take confidence from his performance.
5. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Pogba scored the winner with an excellent header, and it was his ability to get into dangerous positions which caused serious problems for Boro. He ran the show from attacking midfield, and something always happened when he had the ball at his feet.

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De Roon stuns City at the death

Sometimes there are goals which live long in the memory. They may be terrific long-range strikes, incredible feats of athleticism, or wonderful dribbles and finishes. Middlesbrough’s only goal against Manchester City was none of these things, but its memory will last just as long, irrespective of how their season finishes. For City fans, it could prove to be the stuff of nightmares, the image of Boro’s players crowding around the advertising hoardings in a state of absolute euphoria.

The game itself was a mismatch from the start. City, who had players worth more money on their own than their opponent’s whole team, started as they always do: in control. Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva and Ilkay Gundogan ran the show, and Boro barely got a touch as they packed numbers into their defensive half. Alvaro Negredo, a former City player himself, was completely isolated in attack, with little to no support or chance of receiving the ball.

Soon the chances began to come for City, as they started to unlock Boro’s defence. Gundogan was denied by a brilliant tackle from Adam Forshaw. Sergio Aguero played de Bruyne in on goal, but his attempt was just wide. Aguero himself received a nonchalant backheel from Silva before unleashing a powerful shot at the bottom corner. It was saved, and the rebound found an offside Silva. Silva had a chance when a dangerous cross from Jesus Navas was brought down by Aguero. Victor Valdes ran off his line to deny Navas, who created a gash in the keeper’s thigh in the process. The list goes on.

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Collision course: Victor Valdes (left) comes off his line to deny Jesus Navas.

Finally, it came. It was de Bruyne who set it up with a ball which was impossible to defend, granting Aguero his 150th goal for City on a silver platter. The ball was whipped in from the edge of the box to the Argentine, splitting Calum Chambers and Antonio Barragan perfectly and finding its target on the edge of the six-yard box. Aguero finished easily, leaving Valdes with no chance as he found the bottom corner.

The half ended shortly afterwards with Navas, whose dangerous shot from the right wing hit the post. It proved to be a perfect symbol of City’s performance in the match itself: so close, but never quite able to put the game to bed. Either way, at that point it was clear that something had to change, or Boro would be blown away completely in the second half.

From the start of the second period, Aitor Karanka’s side slowly began to find a way into the contest. It was Negredo who started it, intercepting an errant pass from Fernandinho and looking for a way up field. With no support, he shot from halfway, forcing an excellent stop from Claudio Bravo and with it a corner. Shortly afterwards, Adama Traore and Forshaw combined to put the latter in one-on-one, but Bravo was too good and the save was duly made.

Eventually City began to suck the life out of the game, playing with less urgency and ensuring that they weren’t caught out by their opponents. It looked as if the game was done, and they should have doubled their lead when de Bruyne’s cross again found Aguero on the edge of the six-yard box. In hindsight, a wonderful thing to have in these situations, it was more costly a miss than it seemed at the time.

Boro were still finding chances at the other end, but they were becoming few and far between as Pep Guardiola’s men effectively slowed the game down. Aguero had another brilliant chance when Navas found him inside the box, acres of space in all directions. Inexplicably, he missed, squandering yet another opportunity to go two up. Shortly afterwards, he was booked, kicking out after a frustration foul on the edge of the box. His emotions were beginning to show, and he was soon replaced.

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Euphoria: Middlesbrough players celebrate Marten de Roon’s late equaliser.

As the visitors tried harder for the equaliser there was more space available, and as the clock ticked over into stoppage time de Bruyne nearly capitalised on a defensive error. Valdes came off his line to cover a ball that George Friend had already covered, and the resulting collision spilled the ball to de Bruyne, who had an open goal to aim at. From well outside the area, he couldn’t hit the target. Mere seconds later came the equaliser.

It started with Traore, who ran in a strange arc around the defence, working towards the centre and looking for an opening. He found Friend on the left wing, and the left back fired it in to the area one last time. It proved to be all they needed. The cross hung near the back post as Marten de Roon met it at pace, sending a powerful header past a flailing Bravo to snatch a draw against all odds.

This draw does not go close to saving Boro from the drop, and it is entirely possible that they could find themselves relegated at the close of the season. Yet de Roon’s goal, and the manner in which it was scored, will last long in the memory for Middlesbrough fans. For City, de Roon’s header could well come to signify one of those moments that can come to define a failed title charge, moments in which it could have been so different, where it could have been won but it wasn’t. Only time will tell.

Manchester – Etihad Stadium
Manchester City 1 (Aguero 43)
Middlesbrough 1 (de Roon 90+1)
Referee: Kevin Friend
Manchester City (4-1-4-1): Bravo – Zabaleta, Stones, Kolarov, Clichy; Fernandinho; Navas (Garcia 87), de Bruyne, Gundogan (Nolito 75), Silva; Aguero (Iheanacho 90).
Middlesbrough (4-2-3-1): Valdes – Barragan, Chambers, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Forshaw; Traore (Stuani 90+3), de Roon, Downing (Fischer 78); Negredo.

Top 5
1. Jesus Navas (Manchester City)
Navas was excellent throughout, making incisive runs on the right wing and causing plenty of problems for the Middlesbrough defence with his pinpoint crosses. He had a massive impact on the match, and had the chances he created been converted City would have won easily.
2. David Silva (Manchester City)
Silva was as brilliant as ever, working his way into little pockets of space and creating big problems for his opponents. He had to be denied on a couple of key occasions, once by the flag and once by Valdes, and he barely made a mistake in his distribution. A class act.
3. Fernandinho (Manchester City)
Fernandinho was in control in central midfield, reinforcing City’s strong positions in attack and ensuring that Boro were unable to break in numbers. His game was not flawless, but he played very well and was as solid as ever for the whole ninety minutes.
4. Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City)
De Bruyne was not quite at his rampaging best as he looked to take care of business, but he was still able to show flashes of brilliance which were very nearly enough to win City the game on their own. His ball to set up the goal was pure perfection, and he backed it up with plenty of other chances which could have been converted.
5. Adam Forshaw (Middlesbrough)
Forshaw was ever-present in both attack and defence, making key challenges at one end and attempting to string passes together at the other. He very nearly scored when he found himself in on goal early in the second half, and he will be very happy with his efforts.

2016-17 Premier League Preview – The Relegation Battlers

Bournemouth

Manager: Eddie Howe
Captain: Simon Francis
Ground: Dean Court
Last Season: 16th
Top Scorer: Joshua King (6)
Most Assists: Matt Ritchie (6)
Prediction: 17th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Artur Boruc, 21. Ryan Allsop, 23. Adam Federici.
Defenders:
2. Simon Francis, 3. Steve Cook, 11. Charlie Daniels, 14. Tyrone Mings, 15. Adam Smith, 29. Rhoys Wiggins, 38. Baily Cargill, Nathan Ake, Brad Smith.
Midfielders:
4. Dan Gosling, 6. Andrew Surman, 7. Marc Pugh, 8. Harry Arter, 16. Shaun MacDonald, 17. Joshua King, 18. Lewis Cook, 19. Junior Stanislas, 32. Eunan O’Kane, 33. Jordon Ibe, Ryan Fraser, Emerson Hyndman.
Forwards:
9. Tokelo Rantie, 10. Max Gradel, 13. Callum Wilson, 20. Benik Afobe, 22. Lys Mousset, 28. Lewis Grabban.

Bournemouth were able to stay up last season despite a poor defensive record, with manager Eddie Howe steering his side well clear of the relegation zone in their first season in the Premier League. They recorded victories over Manchester United and Chelsea, and they rose to eleventh place before a late season slump saw them drop to sixteenth on the table. Howe has taken the side to incredible heights by playing attacking football, and he was touted as a possible candidate to take over from Roy Hodgson as the English manager. Callum Wilson (pictured) has recovered from the injury that kept him out of action for six months last season, and the pacey striker is sure to cause plenty of problems for opposition defences. Max Gradel, Joshua King and Junior Stanislas are excellent players who will provide excellent support for Wilson, and Andrew Surman, Dan Gosling and Harry Arter will be solid in the centre of the park.

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Bournemouth have an excellent attack, but the same cannot be said about the defence. Only Aston Villa allowed more goals than them last season, and the back four is full of holes. Artur Boruc is 37, and his failure to perform in goal has left Howe with a dilemma. Neither one of Adam Federici and Ryan Allsop is good enough to take over from the Polish veteran, and if the problem is not fixed then Bournemouth could struggle. Adam Smith, Steve Cook, Simon Francis and Charlie Daniels are all small-time players, and while Nathan Ake and Brad Smith have been brought in to provide cover at left back the defence is still not as strong as it could be. Matt Ritchie has departed for Newcastle United, and the loss of the side’s main playmaker could prove costly come the end of the season. Ultimately, Bournemouth do not have the quality to compete with the best sides, and while they punched above their weight last season this may not happen again.

Star Player: Callum Wilson

Wilson’s rise over the last few seasons has been meteoric, with the pacey striker developing from a fringe player at Coventry City into one of the Premier League’s most dangerous attackers. He nearly outscored all of his teammates last season despite missing six months with a knee injury, and he could be very difficult to deal with when he is on his game.

Key Player: Artur Boruc

Boruc has played at the highest level for over fifteen years, and the veteran Polish stopper will be looking to use all of his experience to help Bournemouth beat the drop this season. He was not at his best last time around as Bournemouth let in nearly two goals a game, and while he is still the number one choice he will need to improve if Bournemouth are to succeed.

One to watch: Jordon Ibe

Ibe made his professional debut at the age of 15, and while he arrives in Bournemouth after five seasons at Liverpool he is still only 20. He became the record signing for the Cherries when he arrived over the off-season, and they will be looking for him to fit in immediately. He has plenty of pace and skill, and he is a very exciting prospect.

Likely team (4-4-2): Boruc – Smith, Cook, Francis, Ake; Ibe, Surman, Gosling, Gradel; King, Wilson.

Burnley

Manager: Sean Dyche
Captain: Tom Heaton
Ground: Turf Moor
Last Season: Championship, 1st (promoted)
Top Scorer: Andre Gray (23)
Most Assists: Andre Gray (9)
Prediction: 19th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Tom Heaton, 17. Paul Robinson, 29. Nick Pope, 36. Conor Mitchell.
Defenders:
2. Matthew Lowton, 3. Daniel Lafferty, 4. Jon Flanagan, 5. Michael Keane, 6. Ben Mee, 23. Stephen Ward, 26. James Tarkowski, 27. Tendayi Darikwa, 28. Kevin Long, 34. Tom Anderson, 38. Cameron Dummigan.
Midfielders:
8. Dean Marney, 11. Michael Kightly, 14. David Jones, 20. Fredrik Ulvestad, 21. George Boyd, 25. Johann Berg Gudmundsson, 37. Scott Arfield, 41. Aiden O’Neill.
Forwards:
7. Andre Gray, 9. Sam Vokes, 10. Ashley Barnes, 18. Rouwen Hennings, 19. Lukas Jutkiewicz, 24. Chris Long.

Burnley emerged victorious last season in a three-horse race at the top of the Championship, with Sean Dyche’s men edging out Middlesbrough and Brighton to win automatic promotion back to the top flight. Andre Gray (pictured) was in top form last year as he led the league in goals, and he will be well supported by Welsh frontman Sam Vokes. Johann Berg Gudmundsson has been brought in from Charlton Athletic after leading the Championship for assists last season, and the Icelandic winger is sure to create plenty of chances with his ability to put in pinpoint crosses from the right flank. Michael Keane and Ben Mee will form a solid combination in the centre of defence, and Tom Heaton will be a solid presence in goal for the Clarets. David Jones, Scott Arfield and Dean Marney are solid presences in the centre of midfield, and Burnley could well have what it takes to beat the drop this season.

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Burnley were very strong as they won automatic promotion to the Premier League after just one season, but there are still issues. The loss of Joey Barton to Rangers has left Burnley a man short in the centre of the park, and Dyche is yet to sign a replacement. There is not much bench depth in attack should Gray or Vokes fail to fire, and this could leave the team in a difficult position. The biggest problems exist in defence, where the losses of Jason Shackell and Michael Duff over recent seasons have left the side stretched thin. It is unclear who will start at right back, but Matthew Lowton and Tendayi Darikwa are not top quality players and this could cause problems for the team. Stephen Ward has plenty of experience at left back, but he is only really getting a game based on the lack of other options available. There is a significant gap in quality between Burnley and their opponents, and they could face a big challenge if they are to survive this season.

Star Player: Andre Gray

Gray moved to Burnley from Brentford at the start of last season, and his purchase had an immediate effect. Gray finished the season as the leading scorer in the Championship, and the pacey striker is sure to make an impact as Burnley look to beat the drop. He can also operate as a winger, and it will be interesting to see how he performs at the highest level.

Key Player: Tom Heaton

Heaton was in top form last season as Burnley won promotion, playing every game and keeping 20 clean sheets. His form led to a call-up to the English squad for the Euros, and he will be looking to perform in Burnley’s return to the Premier League. Burnley’s defence is not as strong as it could be, and if Heaton does not clean up at the back then there will be problems.

One to watch: Michael Keane

Keane is a former product of the Manchester United youth academy, and the young central defender has firmly established himself in Burnley’s best eleven. He played 44 games as the Clarets won promotion, and if they are to stay in the top flight he will need to provide plenty of solidity in the heart of defence. He is still only 23, and he has a long career ahead of him.

Likely team (4-4-2): Heaton – Lowton, Keane, Mee, Ward; Gudmundsson, Arfield, Jones, Boyd; Gray, Vokes.

Hull City

Manager: Mike Phelan
Captain: Michael Dawson
Ground: KCOM Stadium
Last Season: Championship, 4th (promoted via the play-offs)
Top Scorer: Abel Hernandez (20)
Most Assists: Sam Clucas (8)
Prediction: 20th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Allan McGregor, 16. Eldin Jakupovic, 30. Dusan Kuciak.
Defenders:
3. Andrew Robertson, 4. Alex Bruce, 6. Curtis Davies, 12. Harry Maguire, 21. Michael Dawson, 31. Brian Lenihan, 33. Josh Tymon.
Midfielders:
2. Moses Odubajo, 7. David Meyler, 8. Tom Huddlestone, 10. Robert Snodgrass, 11. Sam Clucas, 14. Jake Livermore, 15. Shaun Maloney, 27. Ahmed Elmohamady.
Forwards:
9. Abel Hernandez, 25. Adama Diomande, 32. Greg Luer, 34. Calaum Jahraldo-Martin.

It has all been downhill for Hull City after they beat Sheffield Wednesday at Wembley to seal promotion to the Premier League. The club’s Egyptian owners have managed to alienate almost everyone involved with the club, and as such they have just thirteen players and no manager going into their first game. The Tigers still have plenty of quality all over the park, and Allan McGregor will be a solid presence in goal when he returns from injury. Curtis Davies will form a solid partnership with Michael Dawson in the centre of defence, and the pair will bring plenty of experience and leadership. Abel Hernandez (pictured) will lead the attack, and Sam Clucas and Robert Snodgrass will ensure that he receives excellent supply. David Meyler will play alongside Tom Huddlestone in the centre of the park, leaving Hull City with a very well-rounded side.

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The Tigers have a fairly strong team, but political issues are already putting their season in jeopardy. They will kick off their campaign against Leicester City in a couple of days, and they are seriously underprepared. An unsuccessful attempt by the owners to rename the club has led to a mutual hatred between the Allam family and the fans, and the club is currently in a period of transition as the owners look to sell. The situation was not helped by an injury crisis which has ruled out many of Hull’s best players, and Steve Bruce’s resignation in response to the club’s inaction on the transfer market has only created more issues. Mohamed Diame, who scored the winning goal against Sheffield Wednesday, has since moved on to Newcastle United, and with Hernandez reportedly looking to move on it is difficult to see how the Tigers will pull themselves out of their current predicament. It is a matter of hours before they host the reigning champions, and it is hard to see them avoiding relegation unless some drastic changes are made.

Star Player: Abel Hernandez

Hernandez was in top form last season as Hull City won promotion to the Premier League, scoring 20 times and causing plenty of problems for defenders. He failed to perform as the Tigers dropped out of the Premier League two years ago, but he has improved a lot since then and could cause plenty of issues if Hull City can hold onto him.

Key Player: Curtis Davies

Davies has plenty of experience at the highest level, and Hull will need him to marshal the defence until Dawson and Alex Bruce return from injury. He is a former captain of the club, and he will need to use all of his experience if the Tigers are to beat the drop this season. He will have a very tough job, and he will need to do it well if Hull are to have any chance of avoiding relegation.

One to watch: Harry Maguire

Maguire emerged as one of the hottest prospects in English football in his time at Sheffield United, and the young centre back will receive more game time this season due to the injuries which are currently sweeping through the defence. He is still only 23, and he is good enough to make the step up to the Premier League. He will get a great chance this year, and he will look to make the most of it.

Likely team (4-4-2): McGregor – Elmohamady, Dawson, Davies, Robertson; Snodgrass, Huddlestone, Meyler, Clucas; Diomande, Hernandez.

Middlesbrough

Manager: Aitor Karanka
Captain: Grant Leadbitter
Ground: Riverside Stadium
Last Season: Championship, 2nd (promoted)
Top Scorer: David Nugent (8)
Most Assists: David Nugent (7)
Prediction: 14th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Dimitrios Konstantopoulos, 12. Brad Guzan, 13. Tomas Mejias, 26. Victor Valdes.
Defenders:
3. George Friend, 4. Daniel Ayala, 5. Bernardo Espinosa, 6. Ben Gibson, 15. Alex Baptiste, 17. Antonio Barragan, 22. Dael Fry, 24. Emilio Nsue, 40. James Husband, Brad Halliday, Adam Jackson, Mark Kitching.
Midfielders:
7. Grant Leadbitter, 8. Adam Clayton, 14. Marten de Roon, 16. Carlos de Pena, 19. Stewart Downing, 20. Adam Reach, 21. Gaston Ramirez, 23. Julian de Sart, 27. Albert Adomah, 34. Adam Forshaw, 38. Harry Chapman, Bryn Morris, Mustapha Carayol.
Forwards:
9. Jordan Rhodes, 10. Alvaro Negredo, 11. Viktor Fischer, 18. Cristhian Stuani, 35. David Nugent, Bradley Fewster.

Middlesbrough won promotion on the final day of the season against Brighton, with a 1-1 draw at the Riverside Stadium enough to send Aitor Karanka’s men into the Premier League. Boro have invested heavily in the transfer market over the off-season, with Viktor Fischer and Alvaro Negredo (pictured) added to bolster the attack. Brad Guzan and Victor Valdes have been signed from Aston Villa and Manchester United respectively, and the two keepers will compete with Dimitrios Konstantopoulos for the starting spot. Karanka likes to base his teams around a solid defence, and the Spaniard will look for good performances from Antonio Barragan, Ben Gibson and Daniel Ayala. Emilio Nsue can cause plenty of problems when pushing forward from right back, and he will look to combine effectively with Stewart Downing and Albert Adomah. Negredo will compete with Scottish target man Jordan Rhodes to start in attack, and they will receive excellent support from Gaston Ramirez, who has the ability to get forward and contribute to the scoresheet. Grant Leadbitter, Adam Clayton and Marten de Roon are all solid presences in midfield, rounding off a strong side.

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Middlesbrough have some excellent attacking options, but their defence could be found wanting. Ayala, who was in top form last season, is facing a battle to be fit for the season opener, and Barragan, his replacement in central defence, is more of a converted right back. Karanka has many options at his disposal in attack, but he is unlikely to change his formation to accommodate for the new additions. This means that players such as Rhodes and Adomah, who are very talented, will be left on the bench despite worse players featuring elsewhere. The new signings have created a clear split between Boro’s best and worst players, and this could prove costly in the event of an injury to a star player. Negredo is a quality option up front, but the Spanish international has not been in top form for some time and he could struggle to fire in the Premier League. Middlesbrough have some major weaknesses, but they have made some shrewd signings in the transfer market and they should be good enough to beat the drop.

Star Player: Alvaro Negredo

Negredo has scored goals wherever he has gone over the course of his career, from his time as a youth player at Rayo Vallecano to his time at Sevilla. His scoring has dropped off since 2013, when he earned a big-money move to Manchester City, but he will be a regular starter at Middlesbrough and has the potential to score plenty of goals in his return to England.

Key Player: Ben Gibson

Gibson has been firmly established in Boro’s first eleven since 2013, when the former English youth international broke into the side after a successful loan spell with Tranmere Rovers. He has become the anchor at the heart of Karanka’s defence, and he will need to lead the charge at the start of the season while Ayala is on the sidelines. There are other options, but he still needs to perform.

One to watch: Viktor Fischer

Fischer has spent most of his short career with Ajax, and he has accumulated plenty of experience at the highest level. He is still only 22 and has plenty of time to develop, but he will play a key role in shaping Middlesbrough’s success this season. He is a winger who can cut inside and make an impact on the scoresheet, and he is sure to provide plenty of excitement.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Valdes – Nsue, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Leadbitter; Downing, Ramirez, Fischer; Negredo.

Sunderland

Manager: David Moyes
Captain: John O’Shea
Ground: Stadium of Light
Last Season: 17th
Top Scorer: Jermain Defoe (15)
Most Assists: Adam Johnson (5)
Prediction: 18th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 13. Jordan Pickford, 25. Vito Mannone.
Defenders:
2. Billy Jones, 3. Patrick van Aanholt, 5. Papy Djilobodji, 15. Younes Kaboul, 16. John O’Shea, 23. Lamine Kone, 27. Jan Kirchoff, Paddy McNair, Donald Love.
Midfielders:
4. Liam Bridcutt, 6. Lee Cattermole, 7. Sebastian Larsson, 8. Jack Rodwell, 14. Jordi Gomez, 17. Jeremain Lens, 22. Wahbi Khazri, 28. Charalampos Mavrias, 41. Duncan Watmore.
Forwards:
9. Fabio Borini, 18. Jermain Defoe.

Sunderland avoided relegation by the finest of margins last season, edging out rivals Newcastle United by two points to beat the drop once again. Sam Allardyce has since left to take charge of England, and new manager David Moyes will be looking to steer the Black Cats clear of relegation for another year. Jermain Defoe (pictured) is a very strong player up front, and the experienced striker will be looking to back up the form he showed last season with another strong performance. He will get good support from Duncan Watmore and Jeremain Lens, who will provide plenty of pace on the wings, and Sebastian Larsson, Lee Cattermole and Jack Rodwell will be solid presences in the centre of the park. Vito Mannone is a strong goalkeeper, and he will receive good protection from the experienced central defensive pairing of John O’Shea and Younes Kaboul.

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Sunderland have been facing a perennial relegation battle since their return to the Premier League, and while they have been able to stay in the division since 2007 they have been forced to change managers many times over that period. Allardyce is the latest in a long line of Sunderland managers to leave the club, and the instability has had an impact on the club’s ability to perform. O’Shea is getting older, and he is nowhere near as good as he was in his time at Manchester United. He was dropped as Irish captain midway through the Euros, and if he is unable to perform then it will leave a hole in the defence. Sunderland have not made many attempts to address the issues raised by their ageing side, and with many of their best players on the decline this could be the season they fall into the relegation zone. They are almost certain to be in the relegation picture at the end of the season, and if they cannot find another gear they could easily go down after years of fighting to stay up.

Star Player: Jermain Defoe

Defoe is one of the most prolific strikers the Premier League has ever seen, and his haul of 15 goals in 32 games last season was one of the bright spots in Sunderland’s campaign. He has accumulated over 50 caps for England over a long career at the highest level, and Sunderland will be looking for a series of strong performances from the diminutive forward.

Key Player: Vito Mannone

Mannone took over as Sunderland’s first-choice keeper halfway through last season, and the former Arsenal stopper was a rock in goal as the Black Cats beat the drop. With Costel Pantilimon’s departure to Watford he will be the number one for the duration of the season, and if Sunderland are to stay up he will need to perform.

One to watch: Duncan Watmore

Watmore burst onto the scene last season, with the former Manchester United reject impressing with his skill and ability to get in behind. He is starting to establish himself as a regular first-team player for the Black Cats, and it will be interesting to see how he performs with more exposure this season. He has a bright future, and could be a star in years to come.

Likely team (4-3-3): Mannone – Jones, Kaboul, O’Shea, van Aanholt; Larsson, Cattermole, Rodwell; Watmore, Defoe, Lens.

This brings to an end my preview of the Premier League for season 2016-17. It is sure to be a tight race at the top of the table, and it will be an intriguing start to the season as the teams look to establish themselves in the competition. Stay tuned over the course of the season for my reports on Premier League matches, starting with the season opener between Hull City and Leicester City.