Stoke City-Middlesbrough Preview
As Middlesbrough get set for their first Premier League match in eight seasons, Stoke City hope this will be the campaign they finally move up from the bottom half of the top 10.
Riverside Stadium welcomes top flight football back to North Yorkshire on Saturday when the Boro host the Potters.
A second place finish in the Championship last season earned Middlesbrough their first promotion since 2008-09, when a 7-11-20 overall result ushered in a long exile away from the top flight.
"The crowd, the players, myself - everyone is really excited," Boro manager Aitor Karanka told the club's official website.
Middlesbrough went undefeated in their final 10 fixtures last season, but drew each of the last four. Boro - joining Hull City and Burnley on the upgrade list - might have the best overall makeup of the new sides to avoid immediate relegation from the Premier League.
"We worked hard to get here so we want to stay," club CEO Neil Bausor said. "Saturday has been a long time coming. It's going to be great for us, the club and the town so we're really looking forward to it."
A season ago, Karanka's group allowed a Championship-low 31 goals and received a consistent performance in goal from Dimitrios Konstantopoulos. However, U.S. National Team and former Aston Villa member Brad Guzan and ex-Barcelona and Manchester United keeper Victor Valdes were brought in to make for some interesting competition.
That kind of depth in goal could perhaps come in handy against the best England has to offer. The spirit throughout the Boro has impressed Guzan.
"You can see that positive energy, belief and attitude that is so important in the Premier League," Guzan said. "You sense that in this dressing room, everyone is pushing each other in training to make sure they're ready."
David Nugent, Gaston Ramirez, Jordan Rhodes and Cristhian Stuani provide some solid offencive options along with Spanish striker Alvaro Negredo. Just who will see the early time up front remains an interesting decision for Karanka.
"We've put some investment in and worked to bring some players in that we hope can strengthen the squad we've got," Bausor said. "Coupled with the experience we've got from last year, we're pleased with where we are."
Perhaps the overall key to the Boro season lies on the shoulders of Karanka himself. Known for some hot-headed behaviour in the past, any outbursts directed toward his own club or game officials might come off as colorful but could prove detrimental in the top division if habitual.
Stoke has finished ninth for three straight seasons, but hope the additions of midfielders Ramadan Sobhi from Egypt and former Liverpool member Joe Allen will help improve on their 41 goals scored in 2015-16. The Potters went 2-3-5 in their final 10 matches and managed 17 goals in the last 17.
Forward Marko Arnautovic, who had his contract extended four years, recorded a team-high 12 goals over all competition, but scored only once in his last seven contests.
"Attacking wise we're in decent shape, we just need to find an end product," manager Mark Hughes told Stoke's official website. "We've now got a long road ahead of us but we're looking forward to it."
The health of defender Ryan Shawcross again remains a concern after he was limited to 20 games a season ago and did not look completely fit during the preseason.
Hughes' club went 6-5-8 on the road last season and was outscored 10-2 while dropping the final three away from home.