MIDDLESBROUGH are the front-runners in the race to land Stewart Downing but the next 72 hours could be crucial if hopes of bringing the Liverpool winger back home are to be realised.

A number of Premier League clubs are interested in making a January move to end his Anfield frustrations after falling out of favour with manager Brendan Rodgers.

But with the prospect of spending the next six weeks or more out of the first team picture, Downing is understood to be attracted by the prospect of moving back to Teesside this week.

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With the Football League deadline for loan deals on the horizon on Thursday, time is running out for a deal to be struck.

Liverpool would prefer to raise some cash from selling £10m-rated Downing in the new year, but Middlesbrough would only have the money to meet such demands if they returned to the top-flight.

Everton and his former manager Martin O’Neill, now at Sunderland, are likely to be among those interested after Christmas.

However, Downing would prefer for something to happen sooner rather than later to avoid spending the next couple of months on the sidelines.

A short-term drop into the Championship with Middlesbrough, who have genuine hopes of being in the promotion mix this season, is a realistic option.

Boro chairman Steve Gibson is unlikely to fund all of Downing’s hefty Premier League wage, but it is hoped Liverpool would agree to pay a significant chunk given he would not be moving to a topflight rival.

Boro would face greater competition for the 28-yearold’s signature when the transfer window opens on January 1, so a loan deal before close of business on Thursday will be discussed over the next few days.

Rodgers does not want Downing, just weeks after the player had spoken of a determination to prove to the manager he deserves a place in the Liverpool team after being on the fringes all season.

The situation took a turn for the worse over the weekend when the England winger, part of Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2012 squad, was omitted from the squad that defeated Wigan 3-0. Downing has already been switched by Rodgers from his preferred wing role to leftback and he hit a brilliant winner against Anzhi Makhachkala in the Europa League last month.

But that was just the fourth goal of Downing’s Liverpool career since Kenny Dalglish took him from Aston Villa in 2011. He has only made one Premier League start under Rodgers.

Downing was a graduate of Boro’s academy and became a fans’ favourite during his seven years around the first team squad following his debut at Ipswich Town in 2002.

He was part of the Boro team that made the UEFA Cup final in 2006 when his three assists led to a memorable semi-final comeback win over Steaua Bucharest.

When Boro were relegated in 2009 he moved to Aston Villa for £12m.

Despite losing to Cardiff City on Saturday, which was a first defeat in nine matches, Mowbray’s men sit in third place in the Championship.

After this Thursday’s loan transfer deadline Boro have back-to-back home dates with Bristol City on Saturday and Huddersfield next Tuesday.

Gibson has sanctioned another appealing ticket offer for the two fixtures on the back of the success of the cutprice deals which led to more than 28,000 fans watching the home win over Sheffield Wednesday on November 9.

􀁧 Boro’s Under-21s continued their good form yesterday with a solid 2-0 win over Fulham.

In front of a number of scouts, and Hull City manager Steve Bruce, Boro impressed to make it just one defeat from six matches.

Left-back Andy Halliday, hoping for a first-team chance following the hamstring injury sustained by George Friend, converted a penalty in the 26th minute after Luke Williams had been tripped.

Williams and Cameron Park went close and Williams added the second just after the hour when he nodded in a cross from Adam Reach.