Middlesbrough marksman Alvaro Negredo makes his return to Manchester City this weekend in a bid to redeem his reputation after a hit-and-miss time at the Etihad.
Negredo will be remembered by City fans for a short blaze of glory amidst a frustrating and largely unproductive spell in Manchester. Since returning to England, on loan to Boro from Valencia, the Spaniard has been manager Aitor Karanka's number one choice to lead the line. After beginning the season with a bang by scoring the Teessiders' only goal in the 1-1 opener against Stoke City, followed by two assists in the 2-1 victory at Sunderland a week later, Negredo has quietened down of late.
The 31-year-old has averaged less than one shot on target per game (0.60 to be exact) -- which partly explains the low volume of Middlesbrough goals so far season. Despite having scored just one goal, Karanka will see other qualities in Negredo such as the hard work he puts in tracking back to defend, his hold-up strength and his provision of goal assists--Negredo leads Boro with three assists. The manager clearly has great respect for the striker, but will bow to more pressure from the fans if he persists in playing an attacker who is just not hitting the mark.
Throughout Karanka's reign on Teesside, prolific strike-forces haven't really been Boro's thing, with a glut of Middlesbrough's goals coming from their midfield. Last weekend's match at home to Bournemouth brought a much-needed first home victory in the Premier League and plenty of positives for the boss.
The goals came from veteran midfielder Stewart Downing and Gaston Ramirez, one of last season's promotion heroes who has struggled to find form in the top flight. Ramirez seemed full of confidence and energy against Bournemouth, reflecting the look and feel of a rejuvenated Boro squad. The 0-0 draw at Arsenal two weeks ago sparked confidence in the side, with goalkeeper Victor Valdes since collecting a second consecutive clean sheet and the Reds taking four points from two tricky matches.
While Karanka may continue to choose to focus his efforts on keeping Boro's defence as watertight as possible, all eyes will again be on what happens up front at the Etihad. Could now be the perfect time to give the younger and faster Jordan Rhodes a run as a solo striker? Or will the boss believe that Manchester City is the perfect game for Negredo to put some ghosts to rest?
Either way, success will only come if Boro continue in the same vein as their last two games, in which they've offered plenty of impetus and inventiveness in attack. Tricky Adama Traore will be top of the list of players who can bring that, alongside Ramirez who, on his day, can really change games with his ideas and influence on the rest of the side.
A couple of players will also be looking to impress ahead of the international break. Homegrown defender Ben Gibson and midfield dynamo Adam Forshaw have both been hugely impressive, both in last season's Championship promotion battle and so far this season in the Premier League. Interim England boss Gareth Southgate had his eye on both players during last week's win against Bournemouth, so both will be keen to put forward another strong performance against one of the league's elite sides. Nobody will want to head into a fortnight-long break off the back of a thumping defeat, so it is in Boro's interest to go for it at City and show what they can do, rather than sitting back and inviting endless pressure.
The Teessiders will hope to hold their ground and grind down a City side who could show fatigue from their midweek Champions League win against Barcelona. City's strength in depth and range of creative options is sure to make it a far more complicated challenge, though. In essence, a clean sheet and a point would be a great steal for Boro, and Karanka will approach this game as simply and clinically as he does all others.