MIDDLESBROUGH boss Tony Mowbray admits he has had to dig deep to cope with injuries in recent weeks, but believes the fact his side remain in a promotion fight demonstrates the strength and depth in his squad.
Boro have had to deal with a lengthy injury list over the festive period, which at one stage saw 14 first-team players in the treatment room, but they have come through a tricky few weeks still in with a shout of sealing an automatic promotion spot.
The New Year's Day defeat at Derby was the only blot to Boro's festive copybook and they sit two points behind second-placed Hull City going into today's visit of Watford.
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The extent of Mowbray's recent injury crisis saw midfielder-turned-left-back Andy Halliday fill in at centre-back, while Nicky Bailey also played there at Derby and youngsters Bryn Morris and Jordan Jones were handed debuts against Hastings.
Now, though, his first-team stars are beginning to come back and Mowbray could have up to five of those 14 injured players back today.
"We've had to dig deep into our squad and we've still managed to win football matches because those players who might not get a start when everybody's fit are more than good enough to contribute to a successful league," Mowbray said.
"I think our squad is pretty deep and yet we've been stretched to the brink in the last week or so.
"It shows how you need a decent sized squad and whilst people can focus on Middlesbrough's injuries last week, I'm sure every team in the country has got injuries and how do they cope with them?
"Sometimes the best XI might finish outside the play-offs because their best XI is never on the pitch. There's a lot to be said about having a deep squad and I'm pretty sure in my mind that's why Man City, Man United, Chelsea are the teams at the top of the Premier League every year.
"Yes, they've got the best players in the Rooneys and the van Persies and the Toures and yet the players who might be 15, 16, 17 on your team sheet at the start of the season end up playing 25 games and you keep winning because they're very very good players.
"Good players win matches and the more good players we've got to pick from the better chance we've got of winning matches.
"The flip side of that of course is I can't keep them all happy and so when I pick a team there's three, four or five or even when everyone is fit there's about ten sitting there that aren't happy being in the team."
When Boro went to Watford last October, they came from behind to win 2-1 courtesy of goals from Emnes and McDonald.
That result was the start of an eight-game unbeaten run in all competitions and Mowbray hopes a win today could be the start of another winning stretch.
He said: "They (Watford) started very strong and could have been two or three up and yet when we got a grip of the game and went on to win.
"They had a man sent off but from one nil down early on we ended up winning 2-1.
"They had a lot of players then and they still do but he (Gianfranco Zola) knows his team a lot better now and he's got a better balance of it and they're getting results.
"I know it's going to be a tough game. It's a very dangerous game for us, they can score goals and yet it doesn't mean it's not a game we can't win.
"Runs of results start somewhere and to win away from home is important for us. We've won five this year, they've won six and it shows you how dangerous they are.
"I think the confidence of winning starts so if Watford was the first of a sequence of seven without defeat it does give the team belief and confidence.
"We've won five on the bounce at home and we'll be trying to make it six on the bounce against Watford."