In the build-up, Aston Villa boss Steve Bruce focused on one key factor; preventing Adama Traore from causing havoc in the Championship play-off clash.
The Middlesbrough dangerman is one of the brightest talents in the Championship and surely one day soon he will be playing Premier League football.
Whether that is with Boro next season remains to be seen after Villa nullified his threat and left the Riverside with a 1-0 advantage heading into the return leg at Villa Park tomorrow night, thanks to Mile Jedinak’s header.
Bruce had tasked ex-Sunderland loanee Alan Hutton with man-marking Traore and. with the help of one or two team-mates, the 33-year-old Scot produced a big performance on the big stage.
Traore had good spells and was a constant nuisance but his threat was well marshalled by Hutton and Co.
Boro’s gameplan appeared to be give Traore the ball and hope that he produces a piece of magic.
Yet with the ex-Villa winger, no doubt with a point to prove, struggling to influence proceedings as he’d like, Boro lacked creativity elsewhere and were unable to penetrate a superb Villa backline, expertly marshalled by John Terry.
On Traore, Bruce admitted: “All week, we have based our training around how do we stop him. Hutton was terrific – he rolled his sleeves up. I knew he would do that.
“He is out of contract, but if he ever deserves a contract it was on that performance. He was immense and he will have to be again on Tuesday.
“You are always wary of Boro on the counter-attack, players like Traore – they have very good players. That’s why they are in the play-offs.”
Boro chief Tony Pulis said: “There were times where Adama had good patches and good spells. He’s a terrific player, he’s got fantastic talent, and on his day he can do things.
“But we had other players who played well as well, and I think sometimes that fact is hidden because of Adama’s rise to fame.”
There was plenty of effort, commitment and desire from Middlesbrough, but Villa had a touch more quality – with Jack Grealish outstanding in midfield – and experience, with Bruce’s streetwise players now favourites to progress.
Pulis’s midfield passed sideways too often, with not enough tempo or pace to their play. They were too predictable and, when they did get an opening, Britt Assombalonga was having an off-day up front.
Boro can take comfort and confidence from the fact this tie is only at the halfway stage, and they have proved they can get results on the road.
The Riverside clash was tight, tense and absorbing.
There was an emotional standing ovation before kick-off when ex-Boro goalkeeping coach Leo Percovich took to the pitch holding aloft a Boro flag, and banner saying ‘Thank you, always together’.
It was Percovich’s first visit to Boro since tragedy struck shortly before Christmas when his family were involved in a car accident in Brazil which claimed the lives of his two young daughters.
Boro fans had sent messages of support and he was back to thank them and support Boro, who started on the front foot but fell behind after just 15 minutes. Grealish’s corner wasglanced in by Jedinak, the former Crystal Palace midfielder having got clear of Ryan Shotton.
Nerves were getting to Boro, but slowly they fought their way back and should have equalised, but Assombalonga failed to capitalise on three chances in seven minutes.
One effort was blasted over the bar, another into the side netting before Sam Johnstone did enough to keep out a low header.
Boro had Darren Randolph to thank for keeping them in the tie just before half-time, the keeper palming Robert Snodgrass’s curling effort on to the post.
The second half was much tighter, with Villa defending well and Boro’s lack of creativity and poor finishing costing them dear.
Sub Fabio provided some much-needed spark, with his volley punched clear, while Muhamed Besic shot wide and George Friend fired over.
Boro have it all to do to achieve their aim of promotion, but, while it’s clearly advantage Villa, with only one goal in it, the tie is still very much alive.
Pulis added: “Going to Villa Park, in front of a full house, it gives them the advantage. But there’s still 90 minutes to play, and anything can happen in 90 minutes.”
Middlesbrough (4-1-4-1): Randolph; Shotton, Ayala (Fabio 64), Gibson, Friend; Clayton; Traore, Besic, Howson, Downing; Assombalonga (Bamford 76). Subs not used: Konstantopoulos, Fry, Cranie, Leadbitter, Harrison. Booked: Friend (45+1), Gibson (49),
Aston Villa (4-2-3-1): Johnstone; Elmohamady (Whelan 88), Chester, Terry, Hutton; Jedinak, Hourihane; Snodgrass, Grealish, Adomah (Kodjia 71) Grabban (Bjarnason 81). Subs not used: Bunn, Samba, Onomah, Hogan. Booked: Hourihane (13), Snodgrass (75) Goal: Jedinak (15)
Referee: Robert Madley