Leicester wearing look of favourites

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The Independent Online
Football

Middlesbrough's season is rapidly developing the characteristics of those Saturday morning movies which always ended in cliffhangers - only the episodes are more frequent.

Every performance ends with the team's fate suspended by some dramatic late intervention. A fortnight ago it was Emile Heskey ripping the Coca- Cola Cup from Nigel Pearson's grasp just as he prepared to climb the 39 steps. On Sunday Jamie Hewitt ambushed them on the FA Cup's road to Wembley. Meanwhile a Middlesbrough maiden lies tethered to a railway line with the express train marked relegation bearing down.

At Hillsborough, in tonight's Coca-Cola Cup final replay, there will, at least, be a conclusion. If another 120 minutes cannot separate Middlesbrough and Leicester City then penalties, the greatest cliffhanger of them all, will ensue.

Much has happened in the 10 days since Wembley, most of it to Middlesbrough. The bulk of City's team prepared for tonight by following the fortunes of their stand-ins at Highbury on Saturday on teletext. Boro prepared with a mentally and physically exhausting two-hour FA Cup semi-final on Sunday.

For the first time then, the odds favour Leicester. Which could be dangerous. Middlesbrough have begun to show a resilence many believed they did not possess. In addition Juninho seems unaffected by the workload - his sparrow legs were still running at Chesterfield deep into extra time on Sunday.

Stopping him remains Leicester's main aim. Pontus Kaamark did it well enough at Wembley to be entrusted with the task again, but Boro have now had 10 days to think of a solution. They may push him further forward to give Emerson more space and drag City's defenders together.

If Nigel Pearson passes a fitness test they will be able to revert to their Wembley line-up with Mark Schwarzer back after being cup-tied and Neil Cox returning from suspension. Leicester have injury doubts over Steve Walsh, Kasey Keller, Simon Grayson and Garry Parker.

The attendance should be good; despite the plethora of expensive matches, demand at the Riverside is so great that Boro's players have even given up their ticket allocation (an astonishing 12 each) to help meet it.

Whether they see a decent match may depend on Leicester pushing Heskey forward and thus giving themselves attacking options and Middlesbrough space to work in. It should be better than the first game but is still likely to be close.

If it goes to penalties Schwarzer will not be worried: he once saved twice in a shoot-out against Canada to earn Australia a World Cup qualifying play-off with Argentina.

It is the first League Cup final replay since 1984 when Graeme Souness's goal helped Liverpool beat Everton at Maine Road. Coincidentally there is another Merseyside derby tonight, at Goodison Park.

A home win will effectively confirm Everton's survival for another year. If Liverpool win by two clear goals they will go top for the first time since January with Manchester United, who will have a game in hand, due on Saturday morning.

First Liverpool have to win, something they never achieved in five encounters during Joe Royle's management at Goodison. Not that it was enough to save him.

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