AITOR KARANKA is confident Kenneth Omeruo will prove a reliable replacement for Ben Gibson if called upon this afternoon, and has predicted that centre-half will eventually become the youngster’s established position.

With Gibson suspended for today’s home game with Leeds United following his dismissal in last weekend’s defeat at Watford, Karanka will have to choose between Omeruo and Seb Hines as he looks for a partner for Jonathan Woodgate.

Since joining on loan from Chelsea last month, Omeruo’s only appearance for Boro came at right-back, with a number of his youth appearances for his Premier League employers also having come in that position.

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He has played at centre-half for Nigeria, however, and Karanka feels he has all the necessary attributes to be a commanding presence in central defence as his career develops.

“Kenneth can play at centre-half,” said the Middlesbrough manager. “I think Kenneth is better as a central defender. He plays there for his national team and that is where I think he will end up playing almost all of his football in a few years time.”

Neither Omeruo nor Hines has played alongside Woodgate this season, so pitching either player into today’s starting line-up would represent something of a risk.

Boro’s defensive strength has been one of their key assets in recent weeks, with the concession of a Troy Deeney penalty at Watford ending a run of three successive clean sheets.

The Teessiders have conceded a goal in open play in just one of their last seven games, and Karanka feels his organisational work on the training ground has helped ensure that changes in defensive personnel do not have a major detrimental effect on the systems that are in place on the field.

“I am confident we can cope without Ben,” he said. “We played with Rhys (Williams) and Dani (Ayala), and were very good with two or three clean sheets.

“Then we had to switch to Ben and Woody, and still kept clean sheets. Now, we have to change again but the instructions and the defensive thinking will still be the same. If the rest of the team plays as I want, then it will be easier for the defenders.”

Williams and Ayala are still a long way off full fitness, although it is hoped the duo could both be involved before the end of the season.

“Rhys and Dani are still a long way off,” confirmed Karanka. “They are long-term injuries, but we have other defenders and we will have to play with them.”