JONATHAN WOODGATE will be treated carefully this week as Middlesbrough head coach Aitor Karanka waits to learn the severity of his latest injury.
The experienced defender was forced off at half-time against Brighton on Saturday after suffering a quad muscle problem.
Woodgate is being regularly assessed but he is already a significant doubt for this Saturday’s pre-Christmas trip to Millwall.
The 33-year-old has played in all five of Karanka’s games in charge and was quickly identified by the Spaniard as a player he wanted to build the team around.
But Woodgate’s latest injury means the Boro boss must consider his options to fill the role when he takes the team to The New Den this weekend.
Young defender Ben Gibson is the favourite after replacing Woodgate during the defeat to Brighton, while Seb Hines, Rhys Williams and George Friend are alternatives.
The absence of Woodgate would be a real blow to Karanka in his attempts to turn Middlesbrough’s season around.
Saturday’s defeat means Middlesbrough are now just three points above the relegation zone after winning just one of their last seven fixtures.
After the trip to Millwall, Middlesbrough have back-to-back home games against Burnley and Reading before the trip to Bolton on New Year’s Day.
And Karanka will hope that Woodgate’s set-back can be shrugged off in time for the festive period.
Middlesbrough are 13 points adrift of the Championship’s top six and something special is going to be required in the second half of the season if a play-off spot is going to be achieved.
Chairman Steve Gibson is already working on plans to strengthen Karanka’s squad when the transfer window opens next month.
The aim will be to bring in a number of new players to freshen up a pool of players he has inherited from the Tony Mowbray era.
Only goalkeeper Shay Given was brought in before the loan deadline last month and he is due to return to Aston Villa on December 27.
By that time it is hoped Jason Steele will have recovered from his ankle problem, although Karanka could still ask Villa to extend Given’s stay in the North-East.
While the focus will be on bringing in new players during the transfer window it could be that Middlesbrough could move players on too if the right deal presents itself.
Karanka has been left frustrated so far by overseeing just one win in his time in charge, although the playing staff have enjoyed the intensity of his coaching techniques so far.
* Middlesbrough's Under-21s won 2-0 at Blackburn Rovers last night when Emmanuel Ledesma was among those to shine for the Teessiders.
Defender Andre Bennett had given Middlesbrough a first half lead when he cut in from the left before curling a beautiful finish in to the top corner of the net.
Ledesma then added the second when he unleashed a stunning shot from wide on the left after the restart before he was replaced with eight minutes to go when Jordan Jones was introduced. The goals meant Middlesbrough ended 2013 on a high with Under-18s youngsters Joe Fryer and Ross McNab making their debuts.
Boro: Fryer, Bennett, Weledji, Jackson, McNab, Morris, Park, Waters, Ledesma, Wyke, Williams. Subs: B Halliday, Coddington, Jones, Kitching, Kneeshaw.