TONY Mowbray admits Middlesbrough have missed Jonathan Woodgate's defensive reliability in recent matches, but concedes the centre-half's appearance record is not something that is going to radically improve in the remainder of the season.
Woodgate has missed Boro's last three matches with a calf strain and is not expected to recover in time for Saturday's Championship game at Peterborough.
The Teessider has started ten league matches this season and contributed to half of his side's clean sheets, yet his underlying injury issues mean he is always going to be susceptible to niggles and pulls that keep him on the sidelines.
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Mowbray is reluctant to field him for three games in a week at the best of times, and his record of just three appearances since the end of September has come at a particularly inopportune time given the long-term absence of fellow centre-half Rhys Williams.
Had Woodgate been available for Friday's 3-2 defeat at Birmingham, it is unlikely that Boro would have defended so poorly, yet Mowbray accepts the 32-year-old's ongoing fitness problems are part of the reason why he returned to Teesside in the first place rather than moving to a Premier League club.
“We accept that Jonathan won't be available for every game,” said the Middlesbrough manager. “I would expect him to be touch and go for the weekend and if he doesn't make it, it'll be a blow. He's not got what you would call a long-term injury, but it's serious enough to be keeping him out at the moment. “Woodgate has played for Real Madrid and played for Leeds in a Champions League semi-final – he's a top-quality defender who doesn't make too many mistakes or bad decisions so when he's not available it's a blow to us.
“Seb Hines has done very well for us, yet when Woodgate plays, we don't tend to give soft goals away. He's got a fabulous ability to concentrate and do his job and he's forever in the right place to block things. He does the basics very well and that's something we didn't necessarily do at Birmingham.”
Friday's defeat prevented Boro moving level on points with Cardiff City, and Leicester's win over Derby on Saturday dropped the Teessiders back down to fourth position.
Saturday's trip to bottom club Peterborough, who suffered a 4-1 home defeat to Blackpool at the weekend, offers a decent opportunity to make up ground, and with three of the club's four league games after that at the Riverside, Mowbray's side should still be in the thick of the promotion hunt at the turn of the year.
They were in the same position 12 months ago of course, only to fall away in the second half of the season, but Mowbray is nevertheless satisfied with his players' progress so far.
“We're in there accumulating points,” he said. “We're sitting in the top four in the table and the challenge is just to get enough points to get out of this league. You've got to win matches, that's what we're here for, and so in that respect Friday was a blip. But there were positives to take out of the game and we've generally been playing pretty well.”
For once, Boro do not have a midweek game to negotiate, so Mowbray is looking forward to a full week's preparation ahead of this weekend's trip to London Road.
That all depends on the weather of course – the Rockliffe Park pitches were frozen solid yesterday after temperatures plummeted – but as someone who always likes to give plenty of consideration to the individual challenges posed by each forthcoming opponent, Boro's manager is more appreciative of a week-long training window than most.
“We'll have to see what the weather is doing, but it'll be nice to spend a bit of time out there,” he said. “It's getting to the time of the year where the weather can be a problem, and that was certainly the case last week with all the rain.
“If we can get a full week to plan and prepare for the Peterborough game that will obviously be very welcome because we haven't really had the opportunity to do that very much recently with all the matches. As Friday night proved though, you can do all the preparation in the world and it doesn't really matter if individuals lose concentration.”