MIDDLESBROUGH are lining up a move for Leicester City centre-half Filip Benkovic, with Watford’s interest in Ben Gibson threatening to scupper their hopes of re-signing their former skipper.

Boro officials have held a number of discussions with their counterparts at Burnley in an attempt to set up a deal for Gibson, but the picture has changed in the last 24 hours as Watford have made a renewed attempt to strike an agreement of their own.

The Hornets made an unsuccessful attempt to land Gibson in the summer, but have returned to the table in an attempt to strike a deal for the Teessider ahead of Friday’s transfer deadline.

Nigel Pearson is keen to recruit another centre-half, and Watford are willing to consider either a permanent or loan move this month. Their initial loan offer was rejected earlier today, but they are expected to return with an improved approach in the next 48 hours.

Their strengthening interest is a major blow to Boro’s hopes of re-signing Gibson, who left the Riverside to join Burnley in a £15m move in August 2018.

Watford will be able to offer a more attractive financial package than the Teessiders, and can also offer Gibson the chance to kick-start his career in the Premier League rather than have to drop back down to the second tier. While Gibson has strong emotional ties to Middlesbrough, not least because of his family links to the club, his strong preference would be to remain in the top-flight if at all possible.

Boro head coach Jonathan Woodgate always regarded a move for Gibson as something of a long shot, and has been working with the rest of his recruitment team to draw up a list of alternative defensive targets.

Jack Simpson remains of interest, but Bournemouth appear reluctant to allow the 23-year-old to leave on loan this month. As a result, Boro have spoken to Leicester officials about Benkovic, who is available provided the Foxes can secure a replacement in the next four days.

Benkovic has struggled to make an impact with Leicester since joining in a £13m move from Dinamo Zagreb in 2018. He spent last season on loan at Celtic, and it was assumed his relationship with Brendan Rodgers would increase his chances of breaking into the first team this season.

Instead, Caglar Soyuncu has established himself as a mainstay in Rodgers’ starting line-up, with Benkovic’s involvement limited to just a single senior appearance in the FA Cup and three outings for Leicester’s Under-21s in the EFL Trophy.

Rodgers is willing to allow the Croatia international to leave, but does not want to leave himself short of options with just Jonny Evans, Wes Morgan and Soyuncu in his senior ranks.

“We’re hopeful that (a new signing and Benkovic’s exit) will be sooner rather than later, over the next few days,” said Rodgers, who is understood to be keen on signing Southampton’s Jannik Vestergaard.

“If we can bring in a centre-half then that will give him a chance to get out.

“He definitely needs the games, and we’re hoping that will take place. But only if we brought one in.”

Boro’s defensive options have been severely limited in recent weeks, but things are finally starting to improve ahead of Saturday’s Championship home game with Blackburn Rovers.

Ryan Shotton and George Friend have both returned to training, having missed most of the season so far through injury. Shotton has not been involved since the goalless draw at Huddersfield in mid-October, while club captain Friend has only made two league starts this season, the most recent of which came in November’s 2-2 draw at QPR.

Saturday’s game will almost certainly come too quickly for them to return to the starting side, with Woodgate keen to ease them back into action via one or two appearances for Boro’s Under-23s in order to limit the chance of them suffering a further setback.

Depending on how they fare on the training pitch this week, they could be involved in Sunday’s Under-23s game with Fulham at Bishop Auckland’s Heritage Park.

Britt Assombalonga has also been stepping up his return to full fitness, and Boro’s leading goalscorer is hoping to be in contention for this weekend’s game at the Riverside.