Steve Evans believes Aitor Karanka is “guaranteed” to hand Jordan Rhodes a full debut for Middlesbrough tonight and has warned Leeds United that stifling the striker is the key to a home win.
United’s head coach played down the suggestion that Karanka was in two minds about starting his £9m signing at Elland Road, saying Rhodes was “100 per cent certain to play.”
Rhodes joined Boro a fortnight ago in a deadline-day move from Blackburn Rovers but Karanka chose to use him as a substitute in his first two games, a 1-1 draw against Blackburn Rovers and a 1-1 draw against MK Dons.
The Scotland international came off the bench to score a 93rd-minute equaliser at Milton Keynes on Tuesday and Evans, who attended that match, said the forward’s introduction had “changed the game.”
Rhodes has claimed five goals in his last four appearances against Leeds, all of those for Blackburn, and asked if he expected Rhodes to start tonight’s Championship fixture, Evans said: “I guarantee you that he’ll start.
“One hundred per cent he’ll make his starting debut.
“I was at MK Dons and he changed the game. Boro were struggling a bit and 1-0 down but he came on, went close a couple of times and then scored right at the end.
“He made a massive difference. So there’s no doubt that he’ll start.
“He’s not a player who’ll go past people at pace or produce spectacular goals from long range but he’s deadly inside the 18-yard box and there’s probably no-one better than him in the Championship.
“In no way will we be caught by surprise if he’s in the team. We’ll be ready for him and we’ll know what we’re doing against him.
“You have to keep him quiet and I’ll be looking for a big performance from our goalkeeper and back four.”
Despite Rhodes’ impact at MK Dons, Karanka refused to commit to giving the forward his full debut at Elland Road. Boro’s manager kept faith with David Nugent in the aftermath of Rhodes’ arrival but he is under pressure to use his new signing from the outset this evening.
“I have to analyse the game and analyse the opponent and it’s too early to say if he is going to play or not,” Karanka said after Boro’s draw in Milton Keynes.
“Everybody who is coming here, all of them know they are coming to a really, really good changing room with a really good atmosphere. The foundations are respect for all the team.”
Evans lacks the same luxury of options and Chris Wood, United’s leading scorer, has been ruled out of tonight’s match with a hamstring strain.
Leeds hope to see him to return before the end of this month but Wood is likely to be a major doubt for Saturday’s FA Cup tie at Watford.
Gaetano Berardi will also be omitted against Boro but the right-back is due to resume full training this week after a three-month absence with ankle ligament damage.
Alex Mowatt, meanwhile, has recovered from a badly bruised leg and should feature in Evans’ 18-man squad tonight.
Mustapha Carayol, the winger who Leeds signed on loan from Boro in January, is ineligible against his parent club.
Wood, Mowatt and Berardi have all struggled for fitness in a period where United have struggled for form and results and Evans, who remains intent on securing a top-10 finish in the Championship, said: “With those three back we’re a much stronger unit. I’m not making excuses because every manager has injuries to deal with but when those three are in form they’re players you’d pick.
“I’ve been here since October and they’ve all been missing for quite long periods in that time. It hasn’t helped.”
The Football League’s emergency loan market opened a week ago but Leeds have not added to their squad and are not expected to secure any further signings ahead of Boro’s visit. Evans said: “What I said before is still the case – if we can get a player we want with a view to a permanent deal then we’d do that but we’re not going to bring someone in for literally three or four weeks.
“That would be pointless. It doesn’t help us build for next season.”