By Chris Harris
By the time Arsenal kick off on Saturday, they might need a win to regain top spot in the Premier League. That means beating the only team they haven't taken points off this season - Middlesbrough.
Gareth Southgate's side inflicted a shock 2-1 win at the Riverside in December and, lest we forget, they forced a draw at Emirates Stadium last season. Indeed, Arsenal haven't taken the lead against Boro since they crushed them 7-0 at Highbury more than two years ago.
Of course, much depends on which Boro side turns up in North London this weekend. Will it be the team which surrendered a golden opportunity to reach the FA Cup Final when they succumbed meekly to Cardiff? Or the side which bounced back in style with a highly-creditable draw at Aston Villa in midweek?
We asked Phillip Tallentire of the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette for his take on Boro's season ahead of Saturday's game. Read on for his views on the FA Cup fall-out, the loss of Jonathan Woodgate and Yakubu, Southgate's new signings and the impact of former Gunner Jeremie Aliadiere.
THE STORY SO FAR
"I think it will be a relegation battle right to the end unfortunately. The result against Villa in midweek was crucial, not just because Boro earned a point, but more the performance. After the defeat to Cardiff in the Cup everyone was really down and the danger was that if they got turned over by Villa the confidence could be mortally wounded. As it stands now though, the good performance means they will go to the Emirates with added confidence. I don't think they will believe they can thump Arsenal but they got a draw there last season and a victory at the Riverside earlier this season.
"Long term the mood in the town will be that the Cup defeat equates to some previous exits - when they were beaten by Leyton Orient in the Sixth-Round in 1978 and then Wolves in 1981. Then people thought Boro would make the semis (it would have been the first time) but what makes this worse is the draw has opened up and also that it was a Wembley visit, whatever you think of that, the fans would have loved to go down for that. Everyone half hoped and prayed but Boro fans tend to assume the worse. I think we are past that though because we have been to European Finals and a Carling Cup final but unfortunately the curse struck again and it was an absolutely terrible performance and the fans were shattered by it. We have been inundated by the fans demanding justice. Although they will be delighted the team bounced back at Villa they will worry about the long term effects that it will have in the town, season ticket sales will be affected because it was a real case of a kick in the teeth when you are just 90 minutes from Wembley and 180 from a potential trophy."
"Luke Young has been terrific. He started quietly because he came to the club with an injury but has been the most consistent player since about September time and released some terrific balls from defence to attack at Villa. He was unlucky to be penalised at the end for a handball but for a couple of million quid he looks real good value - one of Southgate's better buys. Gary O'Neil hasn't been the player people expected to get and he hasn't hit the heights he did at Pompey. He is an honest player but just hasn't been able to score. Playing as an out and out wide man hasn't helped him, but there is no question about his work-rate. Elsewhere Tuncay has looked good in spells but not scored enough goals. Alfonso Alves too is a bit of a mystery. A club record £12.7 million, he has made six appearances and they haven't really found a role for him yet. They need to work hard over the summer and get a partnership going or gelling. Then of course Mido needs to start scoring after coming back from injury."
"In terms of Woodgate they have coped OK. He wasn't the same this season as he was last year. Last season people say, with a lot of justification, that if he hadn't been in, Middlesbrough might have gone down. He was the difference, keeping clean sheets and digging out results when they were needed. The defence has been fairly decent this season. David Wheater has been a good find which allowed Woodgate to go. Robert Huth, when he has played, has been impressive and likewise Emmanuel Pogatetz. They are a little bit short on the full back positions but as a unit they have done OK. What has put pressure on us is that Yakubu and Viduka's goals have not been replaced. Downing, with seven, is top scorer and none of the new guys have set the world alight with goals. Southgate wanted goals from across the midfield and perhaps double figures from his front men. They are one of the lowest scorers in the league and if they go a goal down they don't have the ability to score twice and win a match."
"Boro are getting quite a few players back. There were some long-term injuries. Andrew Taylor is still a couple of games away but Robert Huth came through Wednesday for his second game in four days and I expect him to line-up again. Alves missed Wednesday through illness but the hope is that he will at least make the bench on Saturday. We are kind of getting towards having a full strength side at Arsenal. That isn't a bad thing to say in March. I think the only place he may think to change from Wednesday is will be if Alves is fit, he might come in for Mido. Mido was no means disastrous at Villa but did miss a sitter with Boro 1-0 up. To his credit though he is showing the right sort of attitude and things do happen when he is about."
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"Aliadiere is one of those players whose reputation is enhanced by the fact that he has been out for the last four games. I am almost certain he will play some part in proceedings in which case O'Neil might make way. His pace gives them an option they don't have elsewhere and he feels that he owes Arsenal a little bit and that he should show them a little bit of what they are missing. That could be interesting. He has been missed while he was suspended. He gives pace to a team that was a bit one-dimensional. He admitted that it took him a while to get used to playing week-in week-out because it had been so long since he had done. Come November we saw the benefit of that."