Boro begin countdown to survival

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The Independent Online
Middlesbrough embark on a crucial eight-day survival period on and off the field when they take on Blackburn at the Riverside Stadium tonight.

Middlesbrough, who could move off the bottom if Southampton slip up at Chelsea, follow up with further home games against Chelsea on Saturday and Nottingham Forest on Monday.

Two days later they face a Football Association appeal panel in the hope of winning back the three points deducted for their failure to fulfil their away date with Blackburn earlier in the season.

The significance of the next few days is not lost on their manager, Bryan Robson. He said: "The next three games could shape the rest of the season for us. We, like Blackburn, have improved since the turn of the year. Top quality players were missing at one stage, but they have made a difference on their return.

"They have risen to the challenge. Now we have to build on that. The confidence among the players is sky high and the lads are buoyant, but they will have to work hard."

Following 6-1 and 3-1 wins over Derby and Leicester respectively, Boro are looking for a third straight win for the first time since September and are boosted by the news Gianluca Festa, Nigel Pearson, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Emerson are all fully fit after an outbreak of food poisoning.

Blackburn will have their leading scorer Chris Sutton available again after a five-match injury absence. Their caretaker manager, Tony Parkes, must decide whether to break up the Per Pedersen-Kevin Gallacher partnership which has produced six goals in Sutton's absence.

Second from bottom Southampton can forget any hope of a helping hand from the FA Cup semi-finalists Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, according to midfielder Craig Burley.

Chelsea are going flat out to secure a Uefa Cup place via the Premiership as an insurance against slipping up on the road to Wembley.

Scott Minto is suspended while Franck Leboeuf (thigh) and Andy Myers (shin) are injury doubts, but the former England defender Paul Parker is set to start his first game for the club after a 20-minute spell as a substitute in the 6-2 thrashing of Sunderland.

Southampton are without teh in-form Norwegian international defender Claus Lundekvam, who suffered a knee injury in the 2-0 home defeat by Arsenal. Ken Monkou or Francis Benali will replace him, while Matthew Oakley and Ulrich van Gobbel are available after suspension.

Graeme Souness, the Southampton manager who has set his side a survival target of five wins from the last nine games, admitted: "We have a hill to climb which is becoming a mountain. If the players are going to show they have the mettle, now is the time. We have our destiny in our own hands, and we have it all to play for - starting with Chelsea."

Jason Dozzell has set his sights on trying to win a new contract when his current four-year deal with Tottenham ends in the summer.

Dozzell was the butt of the crowd's anger last week after squandering a golden chance against Forest, but he impressed in Saturday's win over Leeds. He is now waiting to see if he will retain his place as David Howells and Allan Nielsen are free from suspension for the match at Leicester.