NEIL WARNOCK is delighted to see his in-form Middlesbrough players living up to the lofty predictions he made when he addressed them during their pre-season training camp in Cornwall earlier this summer.

Boro head to Warnock’s old club, Cardiff City, this afternoon looking to provide a positive end to a successful week that has already seen them claim four points from matches against high-flying Reading and Bristol City.

Tuesday’s 1-0 win at Ashton Gate, when Boro saw off a table-topping Robins side that were previously unbeaten, was an especially notable result, but while Warnock was delighted with his players’ performance against the erstwhile league leaders, the quality of their display did not really come as a surprise.

Despite last season’s battle against relegation, Warnock always felt he had inherited a squad brimming with potential. The challenge was to convince some of his under-performing players what they were capable of, and help elicit the individual and collective improvements that had previously been untapped.

“I told them in Cornwall that they didn’t know how good they could be,” said Warnock. “I told certain individuals that, and also said it to them as a team. I’ve had eight promotions, and I know what it takes to do well in this division.

“I know what I’ve got here, but I said to them, ‘You’ve all got to play to the top level of your ability’. I said, ‘If you can do that, and maybe improve just a little bit, then I think we can be in and amongst it. We can be in the top ten, pushing up to the top six’. And to be fair to them so far, they’ve done exactly that.

“I say they’ve surprised me, they haven’t actually surprised me, but what they’ve done is listened and their natural ability has come out in each position they play. What I wanted them to be good at in each individual position, they’ve actually done that. Then because they’re playing well, the confidence comes and they do other things too. That then breeds more confidence and the whole thing builds – I’ve enjoyed seeing them develop as a team.”

Warnock has not taken the same satisfaction from Boro’s mounting injury list, with the impact of this month’s failure to recruit a forward on domestic deadline day having being exacerbated by injuries to both Ashley Fletcher and Britt Assombalonga.

Fletcher will not be returning until January at the earliest, so while Assombalonga’s muscular problem is not as serious as the hamstring issue affecting his fellow forward, the lack of alternatives within the squad means Warnock is treading much more carefully than might otherwise have been the case.

Assombalonga remained in the North-East to receive treatment while his team-mates headed to Bristol in midweek, and while he was due to return to light training yesterday afternoon, the skipper is extremely unlikely to be risked at the Cardiff City Stadium.

“He’s got a nick on his adductor, the side groin,” said Warnock. “It just didn’t feel right (against Reading), so straight away we took him off and kept him out the squad at Bristol.

“He’s had treatment since we’ve away, and he’s been swimming and everything, but with so many games coming up, we can’t risk anybody.”

With Assombalonga and Fletcher both sidelined, Chuba Akpom is Boro’s only available centre-forward, hence Warnock’s interest in the free-agent market.

The Boro boss continues to mull over a couple of options, but as things stand, he is not on the brink of making a signing.

“Nothing has changed,” he said. “We’re still looking around. There are one or two options, and one or two players have been mentioned and are on our radar. But at the moment, we’re not signing anybody at the minute.”

One of Boro’s key summer transfers saw Marcus Bettinelli arrive on a season-long loan from Fulham. The 28-year-old has made an immediate impact on Teesside, both in terms of his shot-stopping abilities and his vocal organisational skills, which can regularly be heard echoing around the empty stands.

“He’s vocal, and you need that,” said Warnock. “His presence is good, on and off the field. I think his presence has been felt, and I’m really pleased to have him. If you’ve got a talker, it doesn’t half help with the lads at the back. Marcus is naturally talkative, he talks all the time, and I think that’s brought the best out of the players.”

Middlesbrough (probable, 3-5-1-1): Bettinelli; Dijksteel, Fry, McNair; Spence, Morsy, Howson, Saville, Johnson; Roberts; Akpom.