Middlesbrough vs Nottingham Forest preview: Now or never for Woodgate's Boro
MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 20: A general view inside the stadium ahead of the Sky Bet Championship match between Middlesbrough and Stoke City at Riverside Stadium on December 20, 2019 in Middlesbrough, England. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)

After Wigan Athletic secured another monumental away victory, this time at the home of league leaders West Bromwich Albion, the threat of relegation has become all too real for Jonathan Woodgate's Middlesbrough - a side who have been splashing above the surface of the drop zone all season, and have now finally submerged into its dark waters.

Two points adrift with 11 games to go, demotion for Boro is hardly set in stone, yet as the winless streak extends with each week that passes, a barren run that stretches back to New Years Day, the desperation intensifies on Teesside. 

Performance levels rose against Leeds United despite a narrow defeat, and standards must be maintained against promotion-chasing Nottingham Forest if the form of December is to revived, when Boro won four on the spin. A landmark victory for the hosts on Monday would inspire some much-needed confidence for upcoming crunch matches against fellow strugglers Charlton Athletic and Stoke City.

Forest, though, are unlikely to compromise for Woodgate's faltering Boro. Their position in the playoffs is far from a formality, but a late surge towards the automatic slots is also on the cards if performances like Tuesday's 1-0 away victory against Cardiff City are emulated.

And with just three defeats on the road all season, the Reds are brimming with confidence, a commodity with an influence that can not be overstated. Just ask Boro. 

Team news

Both George Friend and Ashley Fletcher will be assessed for Boro, with hamstring injuries having forced them off in Wednesday's defeat to Leeds. Patrick Roberts, Daniel Ayala, and Dael Fry remain sidelined. 

For the visitors, a late decision will be made on fan favourite Samba Sow, who has been absent with a knee injury since the 2-2 draw with West Brom. "The knee is getting better. I had some training with the physio and tomorrow [Saturday], I will train with the team and hopefully everything will be ok," Sow told the Nottingham Forest media.

Lewis Grabban (knee), and Sammy Ameobi (hip) are also said to be carrying minor knocks, but should both be passed fit after managing to push through against Cardiff. January recruit Nuno Da Costa is ruled out with a muscle injury.

Sow to return

The return of midfield powerhouse Samba Sow could not come quickly enough for Nottingham Forest. 

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Contributions have been far from disastrous from the deputising Ryan Yates and Alfa Semedo, who held their own in the midfield against Cardiff, but Sow's destructivity and power set him apart from his colleagues.

Seldom outmuscled with his presence in midfield, the Malian's discipline and work-rate are invaluable to Lamouchi. And during transitions, his thrust and motor-like directness drives Forest into threatening areas, setting the wheels in motion for the likes of Joe Lolley and Lewis Grabban.

Sow's selfless work means he won't be making the headlines any time soon, but the void manifested by his absence speaks volumes about the indispensability of Forest's midfield engine. 

Goals are drying up for Boro

After bolstering their offensive ammunition in January with the additions of Patrick Roberts and Lukas Nmecha, few expected Boro to find goals hard to come by in the second half of the campaign. Yet Woodgate's men head into Monday's fixture on the back of three successive 1-0 defeats, and three insipid attacking performances.

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In fairness, their cause has not been helped by an injury to the aforementioned Roberts, whose zest and innovation was integral to the success of Middlesbrough's attacking interplay upon arrival. Ashley Fletcher has also failed to find the net in four, with his goalscoring touch having deserted him after a prolific spell across December and January. 

But to focus on individual performances would be to ignore the fundamental shortcomings that Woodgate confronts. Boro aren't even creating chances.

Whatever the cause of that is, Woodgate needs to get to the root of it, and he needs to do so quickly, as in Forest, you have the second-meanest defence in the Sky Bet Championship, and a team with a speciality in away clean sheets. 

What the managers have said

Woodgate has portrayed a characteristically positive persona going into Monday's clash, and believes his side can take solace from a much-improved performance against Leeds on Wednesday as they look to climb out of the relegation zone.

”I thought the perforance was a lot better compared to what it was like against Luton and Barnsley," Woodgate told the Middlesbrough media. "A million times better than that."

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"Ok, at the top end of the pitch we need to produce more quality, but that will get there. What I was most pleased about was that we matched Leeds throughout the full 90 minutes."

On the threat of relegation, he added: "Everything is possible. But I don't envisage that [going down] at the minute at all. I see 11 games to go, 11 big games, and I see us not going down. I see us climbing the table with victories" 

Lamouchi has warned his players that they will have to replicate, and even increase their intensity for the trip to Middlesbrough, with Woodgate's men fighting for their lives in the midst of a heated relegation battle.

He told the Nottingham Forest media: “We controlled the game in Cardiff but I am not sure we will control the game at Middlesbrough. They are fighting to stay in the league and they disturbed Leeds a lot, and for me they deserved to score at least one goal.

"We need to be ready and increase the level if we can, because Monday night, on the TV against Middlesbrough who need points. When you need points you are very determined."