AITOR KARANKA claims Patrick Bamford is a much better player now than when he first arrived at Middlesbrough, and feels the striker’s increased selflessness has been the key to his development.

Bamford, who faces a race against time to be fit for tomorrow’s crucial game at Fulham, was crowned Championship Player of the Year at last weekend’s Football League Awards after scoring 17 league goals during his season-long loan from Chelsea.

The 21-year-old was already regarded as one of the most promising youngsters in the country when he moved to Teesside after spending the second half of last season with Derby.

But his progress has accelerated rapidly in the last nine months, to the point where Jose Mourinho is considering offering him a place in Chelsea’s first-team squad this summer.

His goalscoring abilities have never been in doubt, but having constantly stressed a need to buy in to the communal ethic, Karanka has been even more impressed with the striker’s willingness to put the needs of the team above his own individual ambitions in the last few weeks.

“He is a better player now than when he first came to the club,” said the Boro head coach. “He has achieved the objective that was there at the beginning of the season for him, for us and for Chelsea.

“I think the season has been perfect for him, and the same is true for Tomas Kalas. He came here from Germany, where he had not played a game. But here he played a lot of matches and improved a lot.

“He is happy and Chelsea are happy – and Patrick is the same. He wasn’t really a kid when he came here because he is 21 and was already a good player, but he has taken his opportunity and has improved every single day.

“At the beginning, maybe he played more for himself. But now he is fighting with the team and now he is a different player. He knows how much he needs to work every single game, and he is doing that. He is a quality player.”

Bamford faces a late fitness test ahead of tomorrow’s game at Craven Cottage, but while he has been unable to take part in a full training session this week after damaging his ankle in last week’s 1-0 win at Norwich, he is expected to retain his place in the starting line-up.

Jelle Vossen is a much more serious doubt, as he sustained both leg and ankle injuries at Carrow Road and is struggling to regain his fitness.

Albert Adomah also suffered ankle damage as Boro briefly returned to the top of the table last Friday, but he should be available to face Fulham.

“I don’t know about Patrick and Jelle at the moment,” said Karanka. “They couldn’t train 100 per cent with the team and I have to check on them.

“Albert had problems against Wolves. He was so bad against Wolves, and at the end of the game against Norwich, he finished very sore again. It is his ankle, but I hope he will have a chance (of playing at Fulham).”

If both Bamford and Vossen were to be ruled out of tomorrow’s game, Karanka would be forced to turn to Kike, who has become something of a forgotten man in recent weeks.

The Spaniard was Boro’s first-choice forward for the majority of the first half of the season, but he has started just one of the last eight matches as his importance has waned.

He has only scored three Championship goals since the end of October, but if he was to be required in the final two games of the season, Karanka would have no concerns about restoring him to the team.

“If Kike has to play in the next two games, then I would be happy with that,” he said. “I have told him that maybe he will be the one to score the goal at the Riverside in the last game of the season that wins us promotion.

“He has to be ready, but he has been training really well and he knows how important he could be. I told him when we played against Man City that he was going to score the winning goal.

“It wasn’t quite the winning goal, but it was the second one, and in football, anything can happen. He is ready to play and he could be very important for us.”

Boro head into the final two games of the season knowing their fate in terms of achieving automatic promotion is not in their own hands.

If Bournemouth and Watford win their remaining two games, Boro’s results against Fulham and Brighton will be irrelevant.

However, with a place in the play-offs already guaranteed, Karanka remains more than happy with where his side find themselves heading into the final week of the season.

“If our aim at the start of the season was to get promotion directly, then maybe it wouldn’t be a good thing to be in this position now,” he said. “But our aim was the play-offs and we achieved that two weeks ago.

“I said last week that we are not under pressure because we are third so we don’t have anything to lose. Our objective at the beginning of the season was to get into the play-offs and we have done that, so the pressure is not for us.”