Ipswich Town travel to Middlesbrough this afternoon for a big Championship clash (3pm). Mark Heath takes a look at Boro...

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Middlesbrough missed out in the play-off semi-finals to Coventry last season, after a strong second half to the campaign.

That inevitably raised expectations for this season, the first full term under boss Michael Carrick - but it started terribly.

Boro didn't get their first win until the eighth game of the season - a 2-1 triumph over then-stumbling Southampton - and lost last season's leading scorer Chuba Akpom to Ajax, among other departures.

East Anglian Daily Times: Chuba Akpom left Boro after bagging 29 goals last seasonChuba Akpom left Boro after bagging 29 goals last season (Image: PA)
Akpom bagged 29 goals in all competitions last term, prompting Ipswich Town boss Kieran McKenna to call him 'the most dominant player in the league' in the pre-match pressers this week.

But, after getting that first victory, it's been steadily uphill for Boro - they've now won seven of their last 12 league games, including handing leaders Leicester a rare defeat in the middle of last month, to sit 12th in the table, just three points off the top six.

Head of football Kieran Scott says that, despite the awful start, Carrick's job was never in peril.

"It would have been hugely poor form from us to react, call it a day and start again after five games," Scott told BBC Radio Tees.

"That was never in our thoughts, Michael and his staff have all bought into the idea of developing players.

"We're all part of the plan and we're all going to live it together."

East Anglian Daily Times: Carrick's Middlesbrough have recovered after an awful startCarrick's Middlesbrough have recovered after an awful start (Image: PA Images)
He added: "It might sound a bit crazy from me, but we all felt like things were moving in the right direction.

"Me and Michael spoke a lot, we were both calm. We've all seen how calm he is and that passes onto the players and staff.

"Make no mistake he's not had a career like he has and come into management if he's not got that little 'bit' when he needs it.

"Just by nature he's a calm, intelligent, methodical guy - he wants to find a solution rather than shouting and moaning.

"There's been a massive upturn and the credit has to go to him."

East Anglian Daily Times: Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna embrace during their time together at Manchester UnitedMichael Carrick and Kieran McKenna embrace during their time together at Manchester United (Image: PA Images)
Friends become foes

Calm, intelligent, methodical guy - remind you of anyone?

If Carrick and McKenna have similarities it's perhaps no surprise, given their time together in the coaching set-up at Manchester United.

And the Boro boss says it's no shock to him to see his old mate fast-becoming one of the hottest properties in management.

Of McKenna, he enthused: "He’s done an incredible job, which I’m not surprised with one bit.

“I’ve obviously worked very closely with Kieran over quite a period of time and got to know him, and how good he is – one of the best coaches you could ever hope for really, one of the best that I’ve come across.

“So I’m delighted for him, he’s a good person and a terrific coach, and I’m delighted to see him doing so well in management.

“From when he took over to where there are now, the run that they’ve been on, the consistency and how they play, it’s testament largely to him.

“But again, I’m not surprised. I knew from the start how good he was, when I first saw him working with the youth team at United, when I was playing, and then I got to work with him through the first team closely – and I knew from that stage that he’d go on to have a terrific career.”

East Anglian Daily Times: Anfernee Dijksteel is suspended todayAnfernee Dijksteel is suspended today
Men down

While Town will have two key players missing today - the suspended Massimo Luongo and Brandon Williams - that pales in comparison to Boro's problems.

Defenders Darragh Lenihan and Tommy Smith, as well as Nottingham Forest loan midfielder Lewis O'Brien, will definitely miss out through injury.

In addition, right-back Anfernee Dijksteel and five-goal wide man Isaiah Jones are both suspended, leaving Carrick short on the right hand side - something which Leif Davis and Nathan Broadhead will surely be licking their lips at.

On top of that, Riley McGree and Marcus Forss have both been missing since October, while Dael Fry, Hayden Hackney and Paddy McNair are all injury doubts.

Speaking on Thursday, Carrick refused to be drawn on the missing men.

East Anglian Daily Times: Isaiah Jones can't play todayIsaiah Jones can't play today (Image: Tom Banks)
He said: “I think we’re better off talking about who is fit and available because we are down on the numbers.

"Those that are available and are playing are doing well though. We’ve got a long list of players not available for various reasons, but that’s not my focus.

"It’s more right now about getting the boys who are fit ready for the game on Saturday.

"Boys get injuries and suspensions and it’s easy to talk about that, but it’s ultimately about the game and preparing for that. It’s a great challenge for us.

"Certain players who hadn’t played so much are now in the team and having an impact, which is great.

"These things always provide opportunities and I’m really looking forward to this game, and the spell of games, to seeing what we’re capable of doing."

East Anglian Daily Times: Former Town defender Matt Clarke is in line for a rare startFormer Town defender Matt Clarke is in line for a rare start (Image: Warren Page)
An old face

One of the players who could benefit from Boro's squad issues is former Town defender Matt Clarke, with the centre-back in line for his first start since October 1, 2022.

He came on for McNair in last week's 3-2 defeat at Leeds, making just his second appearance in more than a year.

The 27-year-old started his career at Town, making five sub appearances before heading to Portsmouth in June 2016.

He went on to join Brighton for £3.4m, but never played for them and ended up at Middlesbrough last year.

Of Clarke, Carrick said: "I think Clarkey has been ready for a good number of weeks. It’s just that opportunity.

"I’ve said it a lot, sometimes you’re in the squad and it feels like your opportunity is a long way off, you can’t see your next game because there are two or three players ahead of you.

"But quite quickly it can change. Clarkey is ready. He showed that in terms of his performance last week.

"It was great to get him on the pitch before that and I said then that he was a big part of the squad and he was ready to play and that doesn’t change now."

East Anglian Daily Times: Matt Crooks will be a danger man for BoroMatt Crooks will be a danger man for Boro
Ones to watch

For all their issues with missing men, it's worth remembering that Boro still have some very good players.

Summer signing Emmanuel Latte Lath has bagged six goals and will likely play up top today, while former Town target Matt Crooks has netted four strikes and laid on five assists, playing largely as the No.10.

On-loan forward Sam Greenwood returns after missing last week's defeat to parent club Leeds United, and he's got four goals and two assists thus far.

And fellow forward Morgan Rogers, who arrived from Manchester City in the summer, has four strikes and three assists to his name.

This will be a tough test for Town, make no mistake. 

Possible starting XI (4-2-3-1): Dieng; Silvera, van den Berg, Clarke, Bangura; Howson, Barlaser; Greenwood, Crooks, Rogers; Latte-Lath