TONY Mowbray is confident his Middlesbrough squad is strong enough to sustain its promotion challenge in the second half of the season and avoid a repeat of last year's faltering finish to the campaign.
Boro travel to Peterborough United tomorrow in fourth position in the Championship table, exactly the same spot as they filled 12 months ago. Back then, they rose to second on New Year's Eve, only to eventually fall short of the play-offs as some key injuries exposed shortcomings in the squad.
Mowbray has made a number of additions to address the failings that were apparent towards the end of last term, and while further signings are unlikely in the January transfer window, the Teessiders' squad already looks deeper and more balanced than was the case last season.
Some significant tests await, and a run of three defeats in the last four matches has undone some of the good work from October and November, but Mowbray remains confident his current side is more capable of coping with the challenges that lie ahead.
"I hope the squad is better equipped than it was last season, and to be honest, I think we've already proven that it is," said the Boro boss. "It's had to be better equipped for us to be where we are now.
"We've had a lot of injuries to important players, but generally we've coped. I can't remember having the same number of injuries at any stage last season and had it happened then, I'm not sure what we would have done.
"We're disappointed with the results over the last few weeks because we had a great chance to push on, but for us to be sitting where we are with everything that's gone on, I think that proves we have a squad that can cope with whatever is thrown at it. And I'm hoping we can only get stronger with the players that are coming back to fitness."
Three of those players - George Friend, Jonathan Woodgate and Faris Haroun - returned to training yesterday and have a chance of being involved in this weekend's game at London Road.
Three more - Rhys Williams, Julio Arca and Mustapha Carayol - will be back in action before the end of January, providing a welcome boost at a crucial stage of the campaign.
Williams and Carayol in particular have been missed in recent weeks, and their impending return is one of the key reasons why Mowbray does not envisage being too busy in next month's transfer window, provided of course he does not receive an exorbitant offer for one of his leading lights.
"Hopefully, getting the injured players back will help," he said. "We're trying to find more consistency with Woodgate's fitness, Carayol is gradually coming back from injury, Arca is recovering from his toe operation and Rhys is only a week or two away from joining back in the squad.
"When we get all those players back, you'd like to think it would make a difference and hopefully we'll be deeper and better equipped to face the challenges that arise in the second half of the season."
Of the three players who have returned to fitness this week, Friend would appear to have the best chance of making the starting line-up tomorrow. Andy Halliday has proved an able deputy at left-back, but Friend had been Boro's most consistent performer prior to sustaining a hamstring injury in the 1-0 defeat at Cardiff.
Haroun injured his calf in the same game and is hoping to be involved in tomorrow's meeting with the Championship's bottom side, but it would be understandable if Mowbray was more reluctant to pitch Woodgate straight back into the fray given his ongoing injury concerns.
"They've all trained, although it's obviously not ideal training conditions because of the snow and frost," said Mowbray. "We'll see how they are after training (this morning) and make a decision from there.
"We have to be mindful that if players have been out with calf or hamstring injuries for three or four weeks, then particularly with the weather conditions as they are, you have to be wary of when you throw them back in.
"If they come off after ten minutes with a recurrence, you'll be without them for another six weeks. But we'll train and then make our decisions off the back of that."
* Boro's home game with Millwall on Saturday, February 23 has been switched to 5.20pm for live Sky TV coverage, subject to Tony Mowbray's side not being involved in the Capital One Cup final the following day.