COLIN Cooper sees tonight’s friendly between Hartlepool United and Middlesbrough as another chance for his players to stake a first team claim.
Championship neighbours Boro are the opposition for Pools’ fifth match of pre-season and Cooper admits there is plenty to play for at Victoria Park tonight (KO 7.30pm).
The two sides have built a strong relationship over the past 12-months, with Cooper taking Christian Burgess, Matty Dolan and Luke Williams on loan from his former club last season.
Pools and Boro also played each other in a friendly last summer, a goalless draw, but Cooper is expecting a different kind of test this year against Aitor Karanka’s Boro.
Boro, fresh from a 3-1 friendly win away at Rochdale on Saturday which saw new signing Kike score, play Villarreal at the Riverside this Saturday.
But Karanka, who is assisted by former Pools Number 2 Craig Hignett after he departed the League Two club in March, is still expected to bring a strong squad to The Vic.
Cooper told SportMail: “We had a good game with them last year.
“Aitor has his own way of playing, he likes to press the ball and the team works very hard.
“He plays in a standard form and doesn’t alter his formation, so 4-2-3-1.
“Maybe we can do a little bit of work on trying to counter what they might have and see where we can get at Middlesbrough.
“It will be a good game and I’m sure they will send a mixture of players.
“I don’t think Aitor will give the full hit to Hartlepool though, they played Rochdale at the weekend, us tonight and then have a big game at the weekend.
“With all due respect to us, I would suggest the team that comes to the Vic won’t be Middlesbrough’s strongest team but should still be strong enough to come here and beat us.”
Pools will field a strong side themselves and Cooper has called on his players to make the most of the opportunity.
In Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at Whitby Town, Cooper named a predominantly young side but Luke James, Jonathan Franks, Sam Collins and trialist Tommy Miller did all start.
Tonight’s team, though, is expected to be similar to the one that started against Gus Poyet’s Sunderland last week.
That means starts for the likes of Scott Flinders in goal with Michael Duckworth, Matthew Bates, Stuart Parnaby, Brad Walker and Marlon Harewood all returning to the team.
Cooper added: “There are places up for grabs in this side and if someone springs up out of the woodwork and impresses then I have to turn round and say “why not?”
“Logistically, the lads that didn’t play against Whitby Town will start on Wednesday, as it will be their turn to start again.”
Cooper, of course, is a former Boro defender and enjoyed two spells at the club, while his new assistant Stephen Pears is also a former Boro and Pools goalkeeper.
Tonight’s friendly will also be a chance for Cooper’s two summer signings to date, Bates and Parnaby, to turn out against their former club as the manager continues his preparations for the Sky Bet League Two opener at Stevenage on Saturday, August 9.
Bates, 27, who left Boro in 2012, said: “I am looking forward to playing against Middlesbrough.
“It will be a strange experience but a good one.
“Their squad has changed quite a bit and they have a new manager since I was there but there will be a few familiar faces I’m sure.”
Meanwhile, in the Boro ranks, defender Burgess and forward Williams - who both enjoyed successful loan spells at Pools last season - are expected to be in the squad.
Fans can buy their tickets from the ticket office in Clarence Road with prices fixed at £10 for adults and £5 for concessions.
There will be availability on the turnstiles on the night but fans are advised to purchase in advance where possible.
Cooper has called on Pools supporters to “come out in force” tonight.
The game follows the 9-0 friendly win over Billingham Town, the 1-0 win at Bradford Park Avenue, the 3-0 defeat to Sunderland last Wednesday and Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at Whitby Town.