Downing edges closer to a return
England winger Stewart Downing is targetting Middlesbrough's Barclays Premiership trip to Arsenal on January 14 as he attempts to keep his World Cup dream alive.
The 21-year-old midfielder has been pencilled in to play for the reserves in their home clash with Sunderland at Central Avenue next Tuesday evening, his first action since undergoing knee surgery in September.
If he comes through that test unscathed, he could go straight into the senior squad for the game at Highbury, but if that comes too soon, he should be in contention for the visit of Wigan to the Riverside Stadium a week later.
'Stewart is doing very well,' said assistant boss Steve Round. 'He's training almost fully with the squad.
'We are hoping, if everything goes according to plan, that he will get a reserve game next week, and if he comes through that, he may be in contention to play at Arsenal.
'That may be a game too soon - he might need another reserve game - but he is ahead of schedule and doing fine.'
That would come as a huge boost to manager Steve McClaren, who has been without one of his most impressive performers during the first half of last season for much of the current campaign to date.
Downing made the left-sided berth his own to such an extent that England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson handed him a first senior cap, a move which led to speculation he could finally be the answer to a problem which has taxed successive national managers.
Ironically, the Middlesbrough-born player initially suffered his knee injury on international duty in the United States at the end of last season, and although he started the new campaign, it soon became clear that surgery was the only option.
In his absence, McClaren has blooded another of his youngsters, Adam Johnson, and has at times adopted a 3-5-2 formation in a bid to cope with his loss, but he has been unable to find a consistent solution.
Downing's return could hardly have been better timed with left-sided utility man Franck Queudrue facing up to eight weeks on the sidelined with his own knee problem, and Round admits his presence in the senior squad would be very welcome.
'It would be a massive boost,' he told the club's official website. 'I think he was the third highest assist-maker in the Premier League last year and it shows how we have missed him.
'We haven't quite been able to get the balance down that left-hand side. We have got young Adam Johnson coming through, who is going to be a great player in the future, but he needs a bit of time.
'With Stewart back in the team and Adam supporting him, our left side is back intact. It would be a major, major plus for us to get him back.'
Downing has always had his sights set on a New Year return and is confident he can rediscover the kind of form which originally got him into England contention with the biggest of prizes awaiting him.
Eriksson will be an interested onlooker as he shapes his squad for the World Cup finals in Germany, and there is little doubt he will maintain close contact with his number two McClaren as the winger takes his first comeback steps.
Meanwhile, Boro were today linked with a transfer window move for Atletico Madrid's Argentinian winger Luciano Galletti should they fail in a second bid to land Sporting Lisbon's Roudolphe Douala.