STEVE AGNEW thinks Stewart Downing is back in the groove and hopes the Middlesbrough winger can finish with a flourish to keep Premier League football on Teesside for a further year.
Boro head into two massive games at Bournemouth on Saturday and against bottom club Sunderland next Wednesday knowing anything other than two victories will push them closer to relegation.
Middlesbrough are still looking for a first win in the league since before Christmas despite signs they are becoming more adventurous under Agnew after replacing Aitor Karanka in the head coach’s seat.
Downing has started all five matches for Agnew having endured a frustrating period under Karanka when the pair had a falling out in the aftermath of the defeat at Crystal Palace on February 25.
And the 32-year-old was on hand to send in a teasing delivery for Alvaro Negredo to volley beyond Petr Cech in last Monday’s defeat to Arsenal, with Agnew appreciative of the player’s performances.
The Middlesbrough boss said: "Stewart … not only that cross on Monday, he delivered the cross for Negredo’s scissor kick against Burnley, and his set plays in swinging left footed quality is there for all to see. Stewart works so hard for the team. He's a Boro boy and it means so much to him, so he's contributed magnificently for the team.”
Agnew didn’t really comment on questions about the impact Downing had under Karanka’s watch, and was keen to focus on the respect he has for the former Liverpool wide-man.
"Any player, when you're not winning regularly, it does affect your confidence, not just Stewart but any player. At the minute he looks like he's in a good place,” said Agnew.
“He does get the credit from people I speak to up and down the country. His name gets mentioned a lot so from that point of view he's an experienced player with a lot of Premier League football and international football, he's well thought of within the game.
"He's a top pro. I wouldn't say that the period that he's been in since rejoining the club has been difficult for him. He's enjoyed it and he's now a senior player and he trains like that.
“The younger players look up to him not just for the way he is and performs, it's the way he is as a person. He's a very humble, mature and good pro. We've seen in recent weeks that left foot when he's in a wide area is top class and will continue to be so.”
Downing popped up on both flanks against Arsenal and is likely to start on the right at Bournemouth; the same wing where his delivery for Negredo’s goal came from.
Middlesbrough will have to make a couple of changes when they head to the Vitality Stadium, with Agnew admitting Grant Leadbitter is definitely missing with a hamstring problem. He joins Victor Valdes, who has a rib injury, in the treatment room.
But Agnew, who has Calum Chambers available again, hopes Fabio da Silva will be passed fit after making quick progress from the knee injury he suffered against Arsenal.
He said: “Grant is the captain, the leader of the team. He has leadership, Grant’s a miss. I thought he was terrific the other night but when a player is injured it gives another opportunity.
“Brad Guzan has done great this season, performed well earlier in the season, so we know he is a good option in the absence of Victor. Brad was confident the other night. He is an experienced keeper, played in the Premier League for seven or eight years with Villa.
“Leo Percovich works hard with them throughout the week, watched the videos and he knows the strengths and weaknesses of Bournemouth in an attacking sense - the experience of Brad and Dimi Konstantopoulos gives you confidence we can cope.”
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