JONATHAN WOODGATE expects a fit-again Patrick Roberts to be a key performer as Middlesbrough look to secure Championship safety in the remaining nine games of the season.

Boro return to action for the first time in more than three months this lunchtime when they host Swansea City in one of the first two Championship fixtures to be staged since the end of the footballing lockdown.

Had the Teessiders completed their season as planned, Roberts would not have been involved in any of their remaining matches. The Manchester City loanee suffered a serious hamstring injury in January’s 1-1 draw with Birmingham City, only the fourth match of his loan spell from the Etihad, and was not expected to play any further part in the remainder of the campaign.

The enforced spring hiatus has enabled him to return to full fitness, and he is set to feature in the starting line-up at the Riverside later today.

He was starting to show glimpses of his ability just before his injury occurred, and having fought so hard to prise the 23-year-old from Manchester at the turn of the year, Woodgate cannot wait to see him back in action.

“Anyone could see what a good player he could be, and what he was doing in different games,” said Woodgate. “He was producing high-quality moments in games where he could turn on a sixpence and do something extraordinary in a game. We lost that, which wasn’t a great situation for us, but now he’s back.

“I think you’d agree with me on this – if we’d had Patrick Roberts fit all season, we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in now. That’s probably true with (Daniel) Ayala as well, I’d say.

“Patrick’s been dreadfully unlucky, but he’s come back and he looks good. But I have to be careful with him. He’s had a bad hamstring tear, and we’ve only been training for three-and-a-half weeks, with two weeks contact. There’s always that bigger picture with Patrick that I need to be careful about.”

Like his fellow loanees, Harold Moukoudi and Lukas Nmecha, Roberts has agreed to extend his loan spell to the end of the season. Having spent the whole of February on the sidelines, the former Celtic loanee will be desperate to make up for lost time as speculation begins to mount over what might happen with him this summer.

He remains some way away from Manchester City’s first team, so there is a good chance he could find himself leaving the Etihad Stadium permanently before next season. Provided Boro remain in the Championship, they will be one of the clubs looking to strike a deal.

“We’ll sit down them (Roberts, Moukoudi and Nmecha) and discuss contracts with them at some point,” said Woodgate. “Let’s see what happens in that situation.

“For now, we’re just happy to have them on loan for the rest of the matches, although I think that (the loans being extended) was probably a bit of a given with the clubs in England.

“They don’t want to leave a bad taste, and these kids want to play as well. They don’t just want to leave with nine games to go, so it’s unfulfilled for them. So, it’s not just the clubs, it’s also the players who want to play.”

With Ayala unavailable after he opted not to commit himself to Boro beyond the end of this month, Woodgate has to decide who to play at centre-half this afternoon The switch back to a flat back four worked relatively well before lockdown, so the Boro boss is expected to stick with that formation.

Middlesbrough (probable, 4-3-3): Stojanovic; Howson, Shotton, Moukoudi, Friend; McNair, Clayton, Wing; Roberts, Gestede, Fletcher.