Boro can take positive step forward by putting a dent in Liverpool's future
When Martin Atkinson puts the whistle to his lips for the final time this season on Sunday, there will be few Middlesbrough fans sorry to see the curtains fall on their Premier League campaign. With just a paltry five wins and 27 goals to show for their 37 game in the top flight so far, the thoughts of the faithful have long since moved on to how a promotion push can be mounted next term.
Developments at the brighter end of the table, however, have offered Boro a final chance to make an impact. Liverpool are desperate for victory and the three points which would secure Champions League football at Anfield but must first overcome their reputation for struggling against lesser sides.
Although relegated Boro have proven themselves not to be an easy opponent in defensive terms -- rather, it is their impotency in the attacking third which has ended their top-flight dream. They have prevented Manchester City and Arsenal from registering home wins and it may just be that the fear of failure could open the door for the Gunners to turn over Everton at the Emirates and claim the final qualification spot.
Many neutrals are hoping for the unlikely situation which would bring about a first-ever Champions League "'playoff match" between Liverpool and Arsenal. A 1-1 draw between Arsenal and Everton and Boro to turn over Liverpool 2-0 are the results required for such a unique scenario to occur -- unlikely as this is, it also remains not beyond the realms of possibility. Boro will arrive at Anfield with nothing to lose and pride to play for, whereas Liverpool may well take to the pitch feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders.
Undoubtedly, Liverpool easily possess the quality to swat aside a sub-par Middlesbrough side -- perhaps with the same swagger they did in disposing of the Teessiders 3-0 at the Riverside in December. But if Boro's key defensive men -- Ben Gibson and Calum Chambers -- can put on the type of performance that has lately thrust the pair into the international spotlight, then the Reds could be in for an anxious afternoon.
Stubborn and resolute for much of the season -- under former boss Aitor Karanka at least -- Boro enjoyed a defensive record only bettered by the top-four sides for much of the season until caretaker Steve Agnew's search for more goals shifted the balance. Boro do carry a touch more attacking intent now and 9-goal man Alvaro Negredo will feel the motivation to try to end his tally in double figures and perhaps put himself in the shop window for other Premier League suitors.
The aforementioned Gibson will also do his future prospects no trouble by putting in a strong shift on Sunday. Many have touted the Teessider's talents as a potentially perfect fit to solve Liverpool's leaky defence. His mature brand of vocal leadership would undoubtedly serve Jurgen Klopp well and no Boro fan would hold any ill-feeling towards Gibson if he were offered the chance to make the leap. Clearly it remains to be seen whether he would able to step up to the level required of a top-four outfit, competing in the Champions League, but there is simply no Boro player more deserving of the opportunity.
Agnew looks set to be able to call upon most of his squad for selection, bar Victor Valdes and Gaston Ramirez who both look to have been consigned to Middlesbrough's history books. Agnew drew criticism from some quarters last week for persisting with goalkeeper Brad Guzan over fan favourite Dimi Konstantopoulos and chances are slim that he will yield to their calls to give the Greek veteran an appearance in the Premier League.
Young starlet Patrick Bamford took his chance in the spotlight last weekend, glancing in Boro's consolation goal in a 2-1 defeat to Southampton. He will surely start at Anfield and continue to press his claims to be Boro's main man when August rolls around and thoughts turn to pushing for promotion.
The thrilling yet infuriating Adama Traore could also be in line for a starting berth and his enigmatic and pacy ways could cause more than a few problems for James Milner and company.
More than anything, a respectable performance to get behind will be the minimum requirement set by the travelling fans who have been sorely disappointed by all levels of the club this season. What promised to be a Premier League dream swiftly descended into a nightmare but Boro can look to their own future by putting a dent in Liverpool's.
Catherine Wilson ESPN FC's Middlesbrough blogger. You can follow her on Twitter: @Basslady