MIDDLESBROUGH manager Aitor Karanka admits he has some difficult decisions to make when it comes to selecting his starting line-up for this afternoon’s game against Birmingham City.

Karanka takes charge of his fourth game since being appointed by chairman Steve Gibson at St Andrew’s with two defeats and a win under his belt so far.

The Boro boss is likely to be boosted by the return of Grant Leadbitter and Lukas Jutkiewicz, the former available after serving a one-match ban for accumulating five yellow cards, while the latter has recovered from injury.

Despite coming away from Wednesday night’s trip to Derby County empty-handed, Karanka was satisfied with his side’s performance after playing with a man down for more than half the game following Curtis Main’s 34th minute red card.

Boro managed to get themselves back into the game through Dean Whitehead’s second half equaliser with the midfielder – who made his first start since the middle of October at the iPro Stadium – impressing alongside Richie Smallwood.

Whether Karanka will be able to accommodate both Whitehead and Leadbitter remains to be seen, especially given the good form of Smallwood in recent weeks, while he will also have decisions to make in other areas of the field.

The Spaniard admits it will be difficult to let certain players down this afternoon, but admits he is happy to have selection headaches over injury problems.

“It is difficult to choose who will be the first team 18 and the starting XI, but I prefer to have this problem instead of saying I just have 12 or 13 players,” Karanka said. “I have 26 players ready to play and it’s a hard decision for me but I’m happy to be in this situation.

“I have tough choices. Seeing Dean score was a good surprise for me. I knew Deano, but he played a very good game and showed the experience he has. He did very well. Grant is an important player for us too and I have a decision to make.”

Although he has only masterminded his team to one win, Karanka believes the messages he is trying to get across to the team are sinking in and the Boro boss believes he has seen some improvement after only three games.

He said: “They are understanding everything I am saying to them and listening well. At Derby we were a lot more compact than when we played Leeds and that is something I have asked them to do.

“We didn’t have a lot of problems to keep out Derby until the last minute and we lost the game but I’m happy with the players. I have a team that is 100 per cent together.”

Middlesbrough and Birmingham are locked together on 19 points and also have three wins from their last ten games with both sides desperate to put a winning run together in order to climb up the table.

Like Boro, the Blues are trying to get back into the Premier League after suffering relegation in 2011 and Karanka believes the fact there are so many teams in the same boat in the Championship makes it harder to get win promotion.

“It’s a very close league,” Karanka said. “You can win every game and you can lose every game. Sometimes that is good because you can win two or three games and get into a good position, but on the other side you can lose and be three points worse off.

“There are a lot of teams in the same position as us. Ex-Premier League teams who are trying to get back into the top league. It’s important for the league but it makes it even harder.

“It will be a difficult game for us again at Birmingham. The teams are very close but I know (Nikola) Zigic from when he was playing in Spain and he is a good player and we will have to keep him quiet if he plays.

“I prepare for every game as if it was our most important. If we win then we will look on Monday to focus on the next game because we won one at home last week and then we lose so you cannot sit on one game.”

Jamie Clapham continues to assist Karanka while the Boro boss weighs up different options for his backroom staff and he admits the search is still an on-going process.

He said: “We are working with the club to choose the best options to improve the staff and the club. I said on my first day this is a long race and everybody needs to be together.”

There was good news on the injury front for Karanka yesterday, who revealed George Friend has not suffered a serious knee injury after trying to prevent Connor Sammon’s winner on Wednesday night.

However, there are doubts over captain Jonathan Woodgate, who didn’t train on Thursday because he had he felt pain in his ankle.

*Fans have a chance to meet the stars and grab a host of Christmas bargains at the final festive signing session on Wednesday, December 11.

Albert Adomah, Rhys Williams and Seb Hines will be at the town-centre store between 4-5pm to sign items of official merchandise and have their photos taken with supporters.