Middlesbrough looking for strong finish with fate all but sealed
Had Wednesday evening's game at the Riverside Stadium been played on the original March 11 date, Middlesbrough vs. Sunderland would have had real meaning. But a match backlog and cup commitments meant it was pushed back and the fortunes of both teams have since taken a turn for the worse.
Now, victory for either side is likely to have little impact on their final fate, with both looking set to fall through the trap door and into the Championship. Instead it looks like more of a battle as to who can avoid the wooden spoon title of finishing bottom: 19th-placed Boro sit above Sunderland but seven points below Swansea, in 18th.
Boro will still be smarting from an unseemly and embarrassing 4-0 defeat at the hands of Bournemouth, who eased to victory after the Teessiders conceded two early goals and had Gaston Ramirez sent off. The Uruguayan international is held up as the poster boy for the humiliation and apparent lack of competition that Boro fans have had to endure this season.
His attitude during the Bournemouth game seemed to typify the nonchalance that has burned through his appearances this season, a far cry from his antics last year as club hero in the Championship.
Despite chairman and lifelong fan Steve Gibson claiming at the start of the campaign that the club were not just there to "make up the numbers," what has been witnessed on the pitch has mostly been exactly that -- turning up and not performing.
Caretaker manager Steve Agnew has also taken plenty of abuse over the past couple of weeks for what many see as his part in the side's capitulation. When head coach Aitor Karanka left in March after an acrimonious couple of months, Gibson stated his faith in then-assistant Agnew to take the club forward and turn things around.
There was no instant impact or wholesale change from the man who had been Karanka's right-hand man for more than two years; Agnew has stuck to the formula of his predecessor, a defensive-first focus with a lone striker. In fairness, it's understandable that this is the route that he has taken, despite them being limited and working ineffectively under Karanka.
To be fair to Agnew, he has been left with an under-par squad, lacking in the quality that is required to score goals and make effective changes to the club's current relegation-facing status.
Despite some positive performances against the bigger sides -- namely the respective 2-1 defeats to Manchester United and Arsenal -- Boro have resolutely failed to make the grade where it matters: The games against the teams around them. Swansea held them to a 0-0 draw but Boro wholly capitulated away to Hull (4-2) and Bournemouth (4-0) and remain without a win in 2017.
Against Sunderland, Agnew will set out to somehow take all three points, but a win would be highly unlikely to change the eventual outcome of the season. For now, relegation looks to be a dead cert and there is no magic wand.
Agnew might do well in the Championship and it must be noted that Karanka's ultra-defensive, counter-attacking system did pay dividends in that league. Meanwhile, though many bigger-name players -- Victor Valdes, Alvaro Negredo and Ben Gibson, for example -- might leave, Boro will likely hang on to players such as Patrick Bamford, Rudy Gestede and, hopefully, Adam Clayton, who are proven in the second tier.
The area and the club must now begin to look ahead to next season, starting afresh back in the Championship, with a different manager, fresh mindset and new-look squad.
Catherine Wilson ESPN FC's Middlesbrough blogger. You can follow her on Twitter: @Basslady