LEEDS UNITED are ready to make a January offer for Daniel Ayala, while Championship rivals Stoke City are lining up a formal approach for George Friend.

However, Middlesbrough are keen to keep both players, and are willing to enter into new contract discussions in an attempt to tie up the duo’s long-term future.

The Teessiders could be set for a difficult January, with seven senior players set to become free agents at the end of the current campaign. With their contracts due to expire next summer, they are free to speak to overseas clubs at the turn of the year, with January representing Boro’s final opportunity to secure a monetary fee before they are able to move on for nothing at the end of the season.

It is hard to see Rudy Gestede remaining on Teesside when his contract expires, and the striker’s long-standing injury issues mean Boro will almost certainly have to accept they will have to write off the £6m fee they paid to sign the 31-year-old from Aston Villa in 2017.

The other six players due to become free agents are more valuable assets though, with Jonny Howson, Adam Clayton and Marvin Johnson joining Ayala and Friend on the list of first-team performers due to reach the end of their current deal next summer.

With January approaching, Boro officials are aware of mounting interest in Ayala and Friend in particular.

Ayala has long been of interest to Leeds’ scouting department, and with Marcelo Bielsa keen to strengthen his squad at the turn of the year as he attempts to cement a place in the Championship’s top two, the Elland Road club are expected to make a push to sign the 29-year-old.

Stoke and Fulham have also been credited with an interest in securing Ayala’s services, but the former are understood to be more interested in Friend.

Michael O’Neill is still getting to grips with the squad he has inherited at the Bet365 Stadium, but Stoke’s scouting team have been working on a list of potential January targets, with Friend figuring prominently in their thoughts.

The 32-year-old’s versatility is regarded as a major asset – he can play at left-back, centre-half or as part of a back three – and his experience could provide a major boost to a Stoke side currently one place below Boro in the Championship table.

The Teessiders would not want to lose either Ayala or Friend, and both players have previously expressed a desire to remain on Boro’s books beyond the end of their current contracts. The pair have enjoyed their time on Teesside, embracing both the club and wider community, and are popular and influential members of the dressing room.

However, they are two of the higher-earning members of the squad, and Boro’s financial position dictates that they will be unable to offer all their senior players new deals on the same terms they currently enjoy. Another raft of first-teamers are due to become free agents in the summer of 2021, and the Boro hierarchy will be mindful of a need to continue falling within the parameters of the Football League’s Financial Fair Play regulations.

“I know things are changing at the club, and maybe they want to get younger players in and maybe they want to have not so many big earners,” admitted Ayala, in a recent interview. “That is something I have to accept.

“That’s the reality of football now – but I want to stay. I know Steve Gibson has made big signings for a lot of money and on big wages for a lot of years. For whatever reason, in the last two years, we didn’t go up and so maybe those things have to change. That’s the reality.”