WHEN Middlesbrough travel to Burton Albion this afternoon, they will be trying to get back on their feet after Friday’s dramatic home defeat to Wolves knocked them from their stride. For their centre-half, Daniel Ayala, however, the challenge is nothing new.

Three weeks ago, Ayala was in so much pain, he could barely get out of bed. Rendered immobile by an inflamed disc in his back, the 27-year-old had to use a wheelchair to get to hospital to enable a specialist to examine the extent of the problem.

For a couple of days, Ayala had to be wheeled around his home, but by the end of the week, he was playing for an hour as Middlesbrough claimed a valuable 1-1 draw at Brentford.

Little wonder his admiring team-mates nicknamed him ‘Lazarus’.

The problem has been addressed now, although the state of his back will have to be closely monitored for the rest of the season, and he will be back alongside Ben Gibson when Boro visit the Pirelli Stadium this afternoon.

Friday’s defeat was a disappointment, but as Ayala knows only too well, even the most painful of setbacks can be quickly repaired.

“It has been a crazy period,” said the Spaniard.

“Three weeks ago, to be honest, I couldn’t even really walk.

“There were a couple of times where I had to go in a wheelchair, but thankfully we got to the bottom of what was wrong and were able to deal with it.

“I feel great now. I feel fine and fresh, and I’m ready to push on in the final seven games.

“I’m fully recovered now. It was an inflammation of the discs in my back. I don’t know how it came or why it happened, but thankfully it has gone now.

“It was bad for a while, and I was in quite a bit of pain. The disc was pressing on the nerve, and that is why there were days where I couldn’t even walk. But it is okay now, it is fine.”

With Ayala barely able to put one foot in front of the other, Tony Pulis had drawn up alternative plans for his side’s visit to Griffin Park prior to the international break.

Even on the morning of the game, it seemed utterly implausible that Ayala would be able to play, but the defender insisted he wanted to try to make himself available, and in the end he lasted well into the second half before he began to seize up and had to be replaced by Dael Fry.

Pulis has subsequently highlighted Ayala’s determination to contribute to the cause as an example for the rest of his team-mates to follow, and while the defender might have been out of favour under Boro’s former boss, Garry Monk, he will be an integral part of his current manager’s plans for the remainder of the campaign.

He appreciates the support he has received from Pulis, but insists any of his team-mates would have acted in the same way if they had been placed in a similar position.

“I knew I wanted to play at Brentford,” he said. “All week, I was telling myself to keep going through the pain because I wanted to play in the game. It’s not just me though, I think the rest of the team would have been thinking exactly the same.

“We are fighting for the same thing – we are fighting to try to get the club back to where it belongs. We are all fighting to get back to the Premier League, and we are ready to do what it takes to succeed. To be honest, we didn’t do very well in the first half of the season, but now we are up there, doing well. We just have to keep pushing.”

The next opportunity to cement a top-six position comes this afternoon, and Boro will start as strong favourites as they take on a Burton side that have won just one of their last 14 matches.

With the majority of their play-off rivals having failed to win on Friday, Boro’s defeat to Wolves did not send them tumbling down the table, but they are unlikely to be as fortunate again if they slip up this afternoon.

With seven games to go, the pressure could hardly be more intense, but having been part of a successful promotion push when Boro made it to the top-flight two seasons ago, Ayala insists he will not be fazed by the inevitable twists and turns that will unfold in the next month.

Crucially, he is equally confident his team-mates will be able to handle whatever is thrown their way.

“We had this kind of pressure two years ago, and that has to be a massive help,” he said.

“It has to help us that we came through that and got promoted.

“It helps give you confidence, and even when we were not doing that well earlier in the season, we knew it was a long season and there was time for things to change.

“We always believed that, not just me, the whole team believed.

“We know we have the quality and experience to succeed in this division, and like I say, it has help that we have been there and done it before.”

Middlesbrough (probable, 4-1-4-1): Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton; Traore, Howson, Besic, Downing; Bamford.