Downing ready for Partizan challenge

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The Independent Online

Middlesbrough boss Steve McClaren has promised that potential England international Stewart Downing will not get carried away with his new-found status.

Middlesbrough boss Steve McClaren has promised that potential England international Stewart Downing will not get carried away with his new-found status.

The 20-year-old winger will take his blossoming talents on to the European stage tomorrow night when Boro entertain Partizan Belgrade knowing that victory will keep them at the top of Group E and guarantee a less taxing draw in the last 32 of the UEFA Cup.

Downing could be forgiven for allowing all the publicity to get to him after being put on alert by Sven-Goran Eriksson for a senior England debut in February's friendly against Holland following a blistering run of form.

Dutch full-back Michael Reiziger, who could conceivably line up against his club-mate in that game, has compared the youngster favourably to compatriots Marc Overmars and Arjen Robben and forecast a bright international future.

McClaren's experience at Manchester United of Sir Alex Ferguson's careful nurturing of young talent, which saw the likes of Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers eased through the early years of their careers, could prove invaluable. But he insists Downing is doing a good enough job of keeping his own feet on the ground.

"Why they did it so well at Manchester United was because of the type of boys that were there, the type of characters that they were," he said.

"The one thing that has impressed me about Stewart is that, while all this has been going on, he has just been getting on with the job and he has just been getting better and better every week.

"That gives me great heart, that very rarely have we needed to step in to give advice because he is handling it all very well himself.

"But if that time comes, do not worry, we will let him know."

McClaren's cautious optimism over Downing's England credentials has given way to an admission that he is making a genuine case for himself, although he knows that only consistency will earn him his big chance.

However, he is delighted at the progress the youngster has made since tying up his long-term future last season.

"I don't think he needs anybody to tell him, the way he is playing," he said.

"He has had a confidence-booster from the England manager.

"He reads the paper every day and after every game, he knows what you gentlemen think about him, so he does not need reminding.

"All he needs to do is play consistently well because yes, he has impressed Sven so far and everybody else, but he has got to keep doing it because the next friendly is in February.

"It was a big deal when we signed Stewart last season when there were a few negotiation hiccups.

"It was fantastic for this football club and for him that he signed for Middlesbrough, and he is showing why now we had such faith in him.

"He is playing in one of the top leagues in Europe and playing very well against some of the best players and defences in Europe, so he is deserving the accolades and deserving the mentions of playing for his country."

Downing and his team-mates have already assured themselves of UEFA Cup qualification, along with Villarreal and tomorrow night's opponents, and that means Italian giants Lazio, who lost 2-0 at the Riverside, are out.

That in itself is a major achievement, but Boro are not satisfied just yet.

"When the draw was made, it was a tough group - I thought it was the toughest group of them all - and so it has proved," said McClaren.

"The pleasing thing for me is we did the business in the first two games. Winning those two has put us in a great position and it has been a fantastic experience playing these teams.

"When we saw the draw - Lazio who were favourites, Villarreal, who have been semi-finalists, and Partizan Belgrade, who have fantastic experience in Europe - we thought this was one tough group.

"To be heading it now and to need a win to finish top is fantastic for our club and for our players, but it is going to be a tough one tomorrow."

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