ONE REPORT this week claimed George Boateng had agreed a new four-year deal with Middlesbrough worth a reputed £10.5m. Wide of the mark, but a sign of the Dutchman's importance that his worth was talked about in such figures.

Boateng returns to the Boro squad for this afternoon's visit of champions-elect Chelsea after missing the last 11 games with an ankle injury.

During that time Steve McClaren's team have managed to win just three of those - against Nuneaton and Coventry in the FA Cup, and at bottom club Sunderland in the league.

Last season, Boateng's lengthy absence made an even bigger statement as his time on the sidelines very nearly cost Boro a UEFA Cup place and a record Premiership finish. Of the 18 matches he missed, only two were won.

Boateng, clearly aware of his value to a squad whose only cover in that mould is 17-year-old Lee Cattermole, and his advisors have been trying to secure the best possible contract he believes he deserves.

Negotiations have been ongoing for months and there have been movements in the right direction towards an agreement, although the reputed £45,000-a-week deal has been strongly denied.

McClaren, though, is convinced Boro's position near the foot of the table will not have a detrimental affect on their attempts to ensure the Holland international commits himself to the Riverside Stadium.

And, with lessons learned by the way they lost Bolo Zenden to Liverpool in a similar scenario last summer, there is a determination within the Teesside club to ensure the same outcome does not happen again.

"Boateng was our best player last season and before he got inured," said McClaren, who tried in January to sign a Boateng-type player in Manchester City's Joey Barton.

"We were very disappointed in the summer not to get any real back-up and in January we had to rely on the younger players, like Lee Cattermole (who is still injured for today's game).

"It was a case of injuries and we have been light in that position. Before he got injured he was very close to signing a new deal. The negotiations are still going on and he is very close. They will not be affected by the position the club is in. I have no reason to believe that, why should they?"

One midfield face that has endured a testing time since his arrival in the summer is Brazilian Fabio Rochemback.

Hailed as the Zenden replacement when he swapped Sporting Lisbon for Boro, Rochemback has struggled to show he possesses the sort of ability that persuaded McClaren to pay £1.5m-plus for him.

But, having witnessed the 23-year-old turn in a notably improved performance against Championship side Coventry on Wednesday night, his boss has been reassured his ability has not left him for good.

Instead McClaren has claimed Rochemback's first season in the North-East bares similarities to Juninho's maiden campaign in this country, although the little South American was immediately taken to fans' hearts.

"Fab has to adapt to us, the culture and we have to get the best out of him," said McClaren.

"The other night showed signs of what a good players he is. He has missed a few games through injury and that might have helped him after a few games where he struggled. Juninho had the same problems and it took him a year to adapt. He then really burst forward."

With the seemingly unbeatable Chelsea next on the agenda, Boro face an unenviable task if they are to improve on their position at the wrong end of the table.

Having won just once in the league from their last 11 outings, a run of form that dropped to a new low last weekend when they were embarrassingly brushed aside by Aston Villa, the Blues should make matters worse today.

That defeat to the Villans led to a backlash from angry supporters but McClaren, whose side have beaten Manchester United and Arsenal on home soil this season, insists the dressing room is focused on turning things around.

"I'm here on results, I'll live and die by them and keep my job by them," he said. "Over the four-and-a-half years, people will look at the facts and look at the results and look at the success we have had.

"The last two-and-a-half months have been very, very difficult for whatever reason. We have not won football matches and, because of that, I've come under pressure."

Chelsea are an incredible 15 points clear of their nearest rivals, Manchester United, at the top of the Premiership and a second successive title may as well be heading up the King's Road.

But despite Chelsea's dominance under Mourinho, McClaren is not prepared to throw in the towel before a ball has even been kicked at the Riverside today.

"We are lacking in confidence but the players have always given me 100 per cent," said McClaren, who could also call on the fit-again Stewart Downing and James Morrison.

"Arsenal and Man United were beaten and somebody has to beat Chelsea (whose only defeat was at Old Trafford earlier this season) at some time. Why not us? It will take an almighty performance but all I am looking for is full commitment and for us to have a go."

With Roman Abramovich's vast wealth ready to boost an already impressive squad whenever Mourinho sees fit, McClaren also insisted the rest of the country better get used to seeing the Lononders where they are.