The Riverside will witness something interesting five minutes before the kick-off of this Tees-Wear derby. Indeed, it could be one of the pivotal moments in the Teessiders’ up-but-mostly-down season.
Will Stuart Downing be walking out in red along with his team mates, and if he does, how will the home crowd react?
Depending on further transfer activity, and its effect on the player’s mental state, there’s a chance Downing could be taken out of the firing line by Southgate. The Riverside crowd can be critical at the best of times, so it may only take a misplaced pass, an overhit cross or Downing showing less than 100% commitment to turn the mood negative.
Indeed, the Riverside crowd may preempt any further action on Downing’s part and decide that his Monday morning transfer request was mutiny enough to start the jeers and boos.
On the other hand, a Ronaldo-esqe love-in, along with the red-striped rags of the Sunderland team, might fire the Middlesbrough-born player to excel and re-kindle his commitment to his current employer.
And so, Middlesbrough’s season may brighten or diminish. Like Ronaldo, Downing has been off his best this season, but still instrumental to the heartbeat of the team. Should he depart, or simply not give his best for the remainder of the season, Middlesbrough are surely in deep trouble.
Ricky Sbragia has also been playing defence so far in the transfer market, with El-Hadji Diouf being a target of his former-Bolton boss Sam Allardyce. He is also still without goalkeeper Craig Gordon, with Hungarian international Marton Fulop set to continue.
[Report card via CleverFootball.com]
Sunderland will go into the tie in the better form of the two teams. A burst of goals against Hull and West Brom propelled the Black Cats out of the relegation zone in December. More recently, they had a satisfying FA Cup victory over Bolton last weekend.
Scoring goals has been a problem for Boro all season, one that seems to be getting worse the longer the season goes on. They have just two to their name in the last six Premier League games. Alfonso Alves is sure to start on Saturday and will hope to add to the goals he bagged against non-league Barrow in his last outing.
Alves is a player who thrives on service, so the Riverside crowd had better hope that Boro’s midfield – and that man Downing – are able to tee some chances up for him if they are to go home happy on Saturday.