JONATHAN WOODGATE is set to start his first game since Boxing Day tomorrow after Middlesbrough head coach Aitor Karanka revealed Daniel Ayala could be out for up to two months with an ankle injury.

Ayala suffered ankle ligament damage during the first half of last Saturday’s goalless draw at Doncaster, but not knowing the extent of the injury, the centre back played on until he was eventually forced off in the 88th minute.

After being assessed by the club’s medical staff, the Spaniard looks set for a lengthy spell on the sidelines and could be out for up to eight weeks, although Karanka hopes to have the 23-year-old back sooner than that.

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His absence is a blow for the Boro boss, who secured the defender’s services on a permanent basis last month, but that blow will be softened by Woodgate’s timely return from injury.

The former Newcastle United and Real Madrid defender has been struggling to shake off a thigh problem since before Christmas with his last start coming in the Boxing Day win over Burnley at the Riverside.

Boro have kept five clean sheets out of eight in the 34-year-old’s absence, but Karanka insists he is focused on the players he has available rather than worry about those out injured.

“This is football,” said Karanka, whose side welcome Blackburn Rovers to the Riverside tomorrow. “Two weeks ago we were fighting to keep him (Ayala) and sign him on a permanent contract and now he is out, but the most important thing for me is the players I have available for the game.

“Woody is fit to play. He will start because we have two serious injuries in defence. Rhys is out and Ayala is injured, so Woody will play. Dani has an ankle problem and unfortunately I think it is serious.”

While Boro have been solid at the back, their recent problem has been in front of goal, but the arrivals of Danny Graham and Lee Tomlin on loan will hopefully address that. Tomlin isn’t available until the visit of Leeds United on February 22 due to suspension, but Graham is likely to make his second full Middlesbrough debut against Blackburn tomorrow.

It is almost ten years since he made his first appearance in a Middlesbrough shirt and Karanka revealed it hasn’t taken the Gateshead-born striker long to settle back into the familiar surroundings at Rockliffe Park.

He said: “The fact he knows this club will help him settle back in. He knows our methodology, because he has worked with Brendan Rodgers at Swansea and that is a similar to the way we like to play.

“He is training very well. He needs to play. I don’t know if he can play 90 minutes because we need a lot of intensity in our game and he needs to be fitter as soon as possible, but he’s a player that will help us a lot.”

Graham has struggled for form this season, scoring once during his loan spell at Hull City before the agreement was cancelled to allow his move to Boro. He scored an impressive 27 goals in his last full season in the Championship, and Karanka believes the 28-year-old can recapture his goalscoring touch with the Teessiders.

“He’s very confident and he’s very happy to be here,” said Karanka, who is also boosted by the return of Albert Adomah ahead of tomorrow’s game.

“He knows the club well. He just needs to have confidence, because you can see in training he’s a very good player. I hope he will be an important player for us.

“For strikers the most important thing is to have confidence. It’s something Juke (Lukas Jutkiewicz) was struggling with, but he will work at it. Danny hasn’t scored a lot this season, but we need him to work as hard as Juke did and also add some goals to his game.

“I don’t think there’s a better player than Danny who could score goals for us in this league. He’s a good player and someone who grew up here and he knows the club, the people. He will be an important player in the dressing room, because he is a Premier League player and has that experience. I think he will help us a lot.”