Middlesbrough's record signing, Massimo Maccarone, is ready to stake his claim for a return to action after a miserable two months on the sidelines.
The 24-year-old Italian striker has been out of action since damaging ankle ligaments during a pre-season friendly at Hull, and spent much of the ensuing few weeks in plaster as his team-mates laboured through the early part of the new campaign.
However, the £8.15m capture from Empoli is now ready to take the first steps on the comeback trail after undergoing rehabilitation back in Italy, and that will mean an appearance for the reserves at Sunderland tomorrow night.
Maccarone, despite struggling at times for form during his first season in England, was Boro's leading scorer during the last campaign with nine goals. And although the Italian still has something to prove, the club's manager, Steve McClaren, will be delighted when he returns to first-team contention.
"He's our top-scorer, there's no getting away from that," McClaren said. "He had a very good pre-season and was looking well.
"It's a frustration. You always want to play your strongest team, you always want to play a settled team - there's nobody who would like a settled team more than myself at the present moment. But obviously with players missing, it's been very, very difficult to get that situation, and Massimo is one of them.
"When I look at the list - and you include Stuart Parnaby and David Murphy among that - there are some very, very good players who we have to come back, and I believe that we can only get stronger this season."
Maccarone's absence has seen McClaren rotate fellow frontmen Malcolm Christie, Szilard Nemeth, Joseph-Desiré Job and the fit-again Michael Ricketts - who will also be on reserve-team duty tomorrow night.
The former Derby striker Christie has largely been selected when fit, and did his cause no harm by netting the winner against both Brighton and Southampton during the last week.
Maccarone thus faces a battle to reclaim his place in the attack, and also to prove McClaren was right to snatch him from beneath the noses of the Serie A big boys in the summer of 2002.
The Italian has been one of several names on the long-term injury list in recent months. Parnaby and Murphy have joined Ugo Ehiogu on the treatment table, with the former England defender unlikely to play again before the New Year after damaging his cruciate ligament at the end of last season.
Ehiogu's central-defensive partner Gareth Southgate, the club captain, is facing his own battle for fitness ahead of the visit of Chelsea to the Riverside Stadium on Sunday.
Southgate missed Saturday's 1-0 win at the St Mary's Stadium after picking up a groin injury in the Carling Cup victory over Brighton, but McClaren is desperate to have him back for the clash with Claudio Ranieri's all-stars.
"Just to look around and see Gareth there, there's immediate respect," the Middlesbrough manager said. "They know what he can do. He's the leader, so he's obviously missed, but other players have to step forward."
Juninho has been recalled to the Brazil squad for the first time since last summer's World Cup final victory for the friendly against Jamaica at Leicester's Walkers Stadium on 12 October.
Ironically, his return to the international fold comes at a time when he cannot command a place in the starting line-up at the Riverside.Reuse content