BOLO ZENDEN has warned Premiership doom-mongers that Middlesbrough should be considered as genuine contenders for a Champions League place.

Despite Boro's rise to fourth in the table following their fantastic start to the campaign, history suggests the club could fall out of contention for a high finish.

The ninth spot they claimed under Bryan Robson in 1999 remains the club's best Premiership placing but that could be eclipsed by Steve McClaren's class of 2004.

Boro have lost just three of their 13 league games and, with a strong squad, hopes are high on Teesside that a European place can be achieved via the top-flight.

Zenden, buoyed by scoring the winning goal at West Brom on Sunday, believes anyone doubting the Riverside outfit may be in for a very big surprise come May.

"A lot of people are expecting us to go backwards and to be overtaken. But they might be waiting a long time," said Zenden, who has played for PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona and Chelsea.

"Everyone is happy. The spirit is good and we are playing some very good stuff. We are fitting in well together and we are getting results away from home on a regular basis. We look strong when we go forward.

"It's not going to get easier - every game is a big one in this league and we have some important ones coming up."

Middlesbrough's rise to fourth has largely been down to their away form, having won their last three games on their travels.

This Saturday, when Liverpool visit the Riverside Stadium, McClaren will be hoping his side can win on home soil in a league game for the first time since the success over Birmingham on September 11. They have drawn two and lost one of their last three.

But while Zenden admits Middlesbrough, with a trip to Villarreal in the UEFA Cup next week, will be fighting to stay as high up the table as possible he admits the task is going to be a difficult one.

"We are showing a lot of character. We are playing well and there's a lot of togetherness in the squad. We are enjoying it and enjoying being successful," said Zenden, with four goals in the last five games having previously not scored this season.

"It's pleased everyone the way we have started. Of course if we had been offered fourth in the Premiership at this stage we'd have taken it. But there's a long way to go.

"There are a lot of games to be played and a lot of good teams coming up. But if we keep doing things right then we should be able to keep the run going.

"At West Brom we could have played better but the most important thing is that we got the result. It shows the confidence that things are going well when we don't play to our best yet we get the result."

Meanwhile, England Under-21s boss Peter Taylor has revealed Middlesbrough's winger Stewart Downing was 'very close' to receiving an international call-up.

The 20-year-old, touted as the long-term solution to the country's left-side problem, is in Taylor's squad to face Spain tonight after being left out of Sven Goran Eriksson's pool for tomorrow night's game at the Bernabeu.

Downing was involved in both of Boro's goals at The Hawthorns on Sunday and Taylor last night said: "I spoke to Sven about it because I was going to name my squad earlier than he named his.

''I know Downing was very, very close because he is in tremendous form for his club.

''The way he played against Lazio (in the UEFA Cup) and the way he played on Sunday against West Brom shows he is in top form.

''But playing Spain away is a different game. When you select someone for the senior squad you don't want someone going in there and not playing with confidence. It's a very tough decision.

''I have no doubt he will eventually get the call if he keeps playing the way he is.

"Steve McClaren knows him inside out so I'm sure he will be talking to the manager.

''Stewart's got a wonderful left foot. It's one of the best left feet I've ever worked with and he is in great form, scoring and making goals."

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