MIDDLESBROUGH’S search for defensive reinforcements looks set to go down to the wire after facing strong competition for Leicester City defender Filip Benkovic.

Boro have stepped up efforts to land the 22-year-old after being left frustrated, at this stage, in their moves for Burnley’s Teesside-born defender Ben Gibson and Southampton’s Jack Simpson.

But a deal for Benkovic is not straight forward either, with Middlesbrough aware of strong interest in the defender from rival Championship clubs and north of the border.

Scottish Premier League champions Celtic are still interested in taking him back to Parkhead on loan, having enjoyed his spell there last year. He had hoped to have played a bigger role this season at Leicester this season but has found opportunities limited.

Bristol City and Derby County are both keen on the Croatian centre-back but, like Middlesbrough, they have been told he will not be allowed to depart Leicester until a replacement has been brought in.

Time is running out for that to happen but Middlesbrough are still knocking on the door, knowing the Foxes are willing to let him go and he is believed to be within their budget.

Middlesbrough have spent this month trying to bolster Jonathan Woodgate’s options. He has brought in Patrick Roberts and Lukas Nmecha to boost the team’s firepower, while goalkeeper Dejan Stojanovic has been added too.

But Woodgate is desperate for a new centre-back to help him during a season when he has been forced to play with midfielders Jonny Howson and Paddy McNair at the back, even though both have done well there.

Defenders Ryan Shotton, George Friend and Daniel Ayala have all been carrying injuries, and teenager Nathan Wood was introduced in the last league game alongside Dael Fry at the back against Birmingham.

Middlesbrough boss Woodgate has been satisfied with the progress made on the transfer front this month but adding that new defender has evaded him so far. Gibson is known to be keen on a return to the Riverside, but the financial aspect of such a deal has been it difficult.