MX23RW : Thursday, May 23 13:45:10| >> :600:87370260:87370260:
Aug 13, 2016 at 3pm UK at ​Riverside Stadium
Attendance: 32,110
StokeStoke City
Negredo (11')
FT(HT: 1-0)
Shaqiri (67')

Preview: Middlesbrough vs. Stoke City

Sports Mole previews Saturday afternoon's Premier League clash between Middlesbrough and Stoke City at the Riverside Stadium.

Middlesbrough mark their return to the top flight of English football on Saturday afternoon with a meeting against Stoke City at the Riverside Stadium.

The Smoggies ended their seven-season absence from the top flight in May when earning promotion to the Premier League, finishing second behind Burnley with a dramatic final-day victory.


Aitor Karanka, manager of Middlesborough during the Sky Bet Championship match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Middlesborough at Molineux Stadium on October 24, 2015© Getty Images

It could have all been so different for Boro. Instead of preparing for games against Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea in the coming months, the North-East outfit could so easily have been welcoming the likes of Burton Albion and Rotherham United.

But for a final-day win over Brighton & Hove Albion at the Riverside at the beginning of May, the Smoggies would have faced another daunting playoff run 12 months after failing to show up when slipping to defeat against Norwich City at Wembley.

Middlesbrough got the job done against Brighton, though, as they so often have under Aitor Karanka's management, to finally give supporters a chance to watch top-flight football up close once more this coming season.

Karanka is something of a hero with Boro fans, having improved the club's position year on year from 14th to fourth to second, but questions remain over the hot-headed nature of the Spaniard following a bizarre incident last season that saw him temporarily axed.

A close acquaintance of Jose Mourinho's, who he worked under during a stint at Real Madrid, Karanka missed his side's meeting with Charlton Athletic after another rumoured falling-out with his backroom staff and players.

That is in the past now, however, and chairman Steve Gibson has very much backed the 42-year-old to get things right this summer with the aid of some welcome financial backing.

Marten de Roon, a tough-tackling midfielder in the mould of N'Golo Kante who led the way in Serie A's tackling charts last season, has joined, while Viktor Fischer, Antonio Barragan, Victor Valdes and Negredo have also penned deals.

Negredo's arrival in particular got pulses racing, with the loanee no doubt hoping to replicate his early-season form the last time he was at this level with Manchester City when scoring a more than respectable eight goals in 17 games.

It is at the back where Boro are particularly strong, going a club-record nine games without shipping at one stage last season and conceding a league-low 31 overall which, combined with the impressive home record, could well be enough to see Middlesbrough mark their return to the Premier League in style.

Pre-season form: WWLWDD

Stoke City

Mark Hughes reacts during the Premier League game between Stoke City and Tottenham Hotspur on April 18, 2016© Getty Images

While Boro have spent the last seven years floundering in the Championship, Stoke have been establishing themselves as a solid Premier League side that now looks set to challenge for a place in Europe.

Mark Hughes stunned many last summer when bringing in Xherdan Shaqiri, adding to an already talented squad that now includes Ibrahim Affelay, Bojan Krkic and Marko Arnautovic - the latter of whom rejected the advances of Everton to remain at the club this summer.

That eventual ninth-place finish last time out can be seen in one of two ways - another solid campaign at this level or a hugely underwhelming season when compared to the achievements of, say, Leicester City.

Stoke have now finished ninth in each of the last three years, building on bottom-half finishes in the preceding half-decade, although the platform to push on may be hampered by other sides also strengthening around them.

Goals, or a lack of them, proved a big worry at times last season, with the Potters ending the term with a poor goal difference of -14 - usually associated with a side battling relegation rather than looking for a top-six finish.

No side in the division shipped more goals between January and May, either, and just a single victory from pre-season may also concern Hughes a little heading into the new campaign - Stoke's ninth in the Premier League.

The arrival of Joe Allen from Liverpool, a real coup for a player named in the Euro 2016 Team of the Year, will surely add some creativity to midfield, while Ramadan Sobhi will also look to get at opponents from a wider position.

Keeping hold of 12-goal attacker Arnautovic was important for Hughes, but the Welshman has been left frustrated in his pursuit of West Bromwich Albion striker Saido Berahino, with the Baggies waiting for arrivals of their own before letting him go for £20m.

Depending on the result at the Riverside this weekend, Hughes may decide to hold out for Berahino until the final days of the transfer window, or could well twist in the hope of landing a prolific striker elsewhere.

Pre-season form: LDWL

Team News

Daniel Ayala of Middlesbrough in action during the Sky Bet Championship match between Middlesbrough v Bristol City at Riverside Stadium on August 22, 2015© Getty Images

Hughes revealed in his pre-match press conference that his "only real doubt" for Saturday is full-back Glen Johnson, who is suffering from a Rectus Femoris injury.

The ex-Liverpool defender will likely be rested for the match if he fails to show signs of recovery, but Johnson aside - and a long-term layoff for Stephen Ireland - it is a clean bill of health for the visitors.

Arnautovic did not travel to Hamburg for the Potters' last outing of the summer, and Shaqiri was also withdrawn midway through, although both will play some part in the North-East.

As far as Boro are concerned, Daniel Ayala has not featured once in pre-season and will therefore be a major loss for the hosts in the heart of a solid-looking backline.

James Husband and Grant Leadbitter are the other two absentees, meaning a chance for a few of the club's eight summer arrivals to push for a starting spot on the opening day.

Middlesbrough possible starting lineup:
Valdes; Barragan, Fry, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Roon; Fischer, Ramirez, Downing; Negredo

Stoke City possible starting lineup:
Butland; Johnson, Wollscheid, Shawcross, Pieters; Imbula, Allen; Diouf, Bojan, Arnautovic; Joselu

Head To Head

Middlesbrough have won just four of their last 15 encounters with Stoke, losing eight of those - including the last meeting in March 2009 when Ryan Shawcross scored the game's only goal late on.

Boro have actually only claimed maximum points on two of the last 14 occasions on the opening day of the Premier League season, too, although they did beat Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 in their last opener before facing the drop in 2008.

Stoke, on the other hand, have won one of their curtain-raising fixtures - a victory against Burnley to kick off the 2010-11 campaign.

Sports Mole Logo

We say: Middlesbrough 0-0 Stoke City

There will be a real buzz around the Riverside Stadium come 3pm on Saturday, as Boro kick off what they hope will be a long and successful return to the Premier League. Stoke will have other ideas, of course, and while they do have plenty of players capable of spoiling the party, this one will prove to be an anti-climax as the sides play out a goalless affair.

Who will win Saturday's clash between Middlesbrough and Stoke City?

Stoke City
Stoke City
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