Boro take on Stoke at the Riverside this weekend (Saturday 3pm) at the start of a week that could be the last roll of the dice for their Championship play-off hopes.

With the stakes so high Boro boss Neil Warnock may even take a risk with some of his walking wounded in these crunch games.

After taking just four points from the last four games the gap to the top six is now a yawning eight points.

But after Stoke – just two points behind and equally erratic – they host Preston and then go to Millwall before an international break.

And boss Neil Warnock insists this trio of tussles give Boro a chance to barge back into it.

“I don’t want to be out of the mix,” he said. “I want to be right in there and fighting.

“And I don’t think we have over-achieved. I am disappointed because I think we could have had another eight or 10 points.

“But if we don’t get points in the next two or three games then that is probably that and we’ll have to start giving lads games with one eye on next season.”

Like Boro, Stoke will be disappointed not to be firmly enmeshed in the play-off scrap but they have been dogged by far too many draws.

“Stoke have one of the strongest squads in the league and I really rate Michael O’Neill as a manager,” said Warnock. “You see where they are and it shows you what a difficult league it is.

“Like us they will probably think they should be eight or 10 points better off and they will be disappointed. They have had injuries and things go against them but they are a good side and will be hoping to give it a real good go next season.”

Warnock must weigh up whether to risk some of key players as they nudge back to full fitness with his medical staff urging caution.

Frontman Ashley Fletcher and tricky wideman Marcus Tavernier are close to a return – although they may have to wait for the following two games before they are thrown in.

Fletcher missed five months with a hamstring injury then scored two goals in two games before limping off again in the defeat against Bristol City last month.

Warnock said: “Fletcher has been training with us but the medical people are saying if I play him and it goes again then it’s my fault. So what do you do?

“At the moment, I’m tempted not to play him but I will see him later.”

Tavernier limped off late in the win over over Swansea and is also rated touch and go.

“Tavernier is slightly different,” said Warnock. “It’s not as bad as we thought. We’ve had a scan but his ankle is black all the way around, just completely bruised around the bone.

“He will get pain but I think he should be okay, although maybe not to be risked for Stoke. But he should be okay to be involved at some stage before the international break.”

And in another boost the boss added that Darnell Fisher is not far away either. “He’s had an Achilles problem but I’ve had a word and he said he hardly feels it now. Darnell will be involved this week.”


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