JONATHAN WOODGATE has stepped up his training this week to boost Aitor Karanka’s options at the heart of the Middlesbrough defence.
Woodgate has been monitored closely since suffering a calf problem in the first half of the defeat at Sheffield Wednesday on March 1.
But the 34-year-old is closing in on a return to action, having been allowed to play a greater part in first team training this week after making good progress.
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He was back on the training pitch last week, but he has increased his workload and he could be in contention to face Queens Park Rangers this Saturday at the Riverside Stadium.
A decision will be made late on Woodgate’s fitness, although Karanka will be in no immediate rush to gamble given the excellent performances of both Ben Gibson and Kenneth Omeruo.
Such a young centreal defensive pairing could have been cause for worry, but the duo have struck up a strong understanding in their three matches together since Woodgate was ruled out.
Middlesbrough have conceded just one during that run, despite fears that the absence of the injured Woodgate, Daniel Ayala and Rhys Williams could have taken its toll.
However, rather than concede more goals, Boro have maintained their miserly ways at the back and it has been at the other end of the pitch where Karanka has seen his side struggle.
The Spanish boss has worked hard on making Middlesbrough tighter since his arrival, knowing they leaked goals earlier in the campaign.
Many put the improvements down to the arrival of experienced goalkeeper Shay Given, who has returned to Aston Villa following a three-month loan, but they have continued to be solid with Dimi Konstantopoulos and Tomas Mejias in goal.
“The main problems we had was the concentration,” said Karanka. “We felt the players needed to know their responsibility a bit more and that they had to remember that their responsibility was the team. We are not making mistakes now.”
A key area Karanka has addressed is the way Middlesbrough defend corners. He has changed a zonal approach to a man-marking system. Rather than defend areas of the penalty area, they now concentrate on individuals.
The Middlesbrough manager said: “A lot of people told us to change the markings on corners. I didn’t believe that at the time. I didn’t think that it was because of zonal or man marking systems that we conceded many goals. I thought it was more individual corner mistakes.
“One player couldn’t mark one player. I thought that could not be. I thought it was more difficult to mark man to man even if the responsibility was easier. I think it is easier man to man on corners now.
“The results are there to say whether you are right or wrong. I am happy for the team that this way is working. The team is playing well and when the goals arrive at the other end we will be happier.”
Scoring is the issue in desperate need of improvement. Middlesbrough have scored just three goals in the last ten games and are without a goal away from home in more than seven hours of football.
This weekend’s visit of QPR is another opportunity to improve on the team’s goalscoring output and January buy Lee Tomlin has not felt any effects of the ankle knock he suffered against Nottingham Forest 11 days ago.
Tomlin was replaced after an hour at Bournemouth, but he has been training this week and will be an option to play behind striker Danny Graham again.
Karanka does not want any further attacking blows after learning Mustapha Carayol will be missing until next season with an anterior cruciate knee ligament injury.
Midfielder Grant Leadbitter will not be available against QPR or at Huddersfield on Tuesday through suspension, so Nathaniel Chalobah should slot in alongside Dean Whitehead in the middle.