Nathaniel Mendez-Laing is "busting a gut" to make his first Middlesbrough start and has "had one eye" on making it against his former club Cardiff City, Neil Warnock has said.
Mendez-Laing was sacked by Cardiff on the eve of the season when the club released a bombshell statement which stated the player had been released following a serious breach of contract.
It has since come to light that Mendez-Laing was banned twice last season after cocaine was found in his system, with the second offence leading to the termination of his contract.
The winger's second ban meant he was suspended from August 14 to November 14 in 2020, however the ruling did not come to light until January 20, 2021, just days before he linked back up with Warnock at Middlesbrough.
Former Bluebirds boss Warnock admitted that Mendez-Laing was not up to speed and had a couple of weeks on the sideline before making his debut from the bench against Derby County on February 13.
He has three appearances in total under his belt so far, all from the bench, but, as Warnock said ahead of Boro's midweek defeat by Bristol City, the ex-Bluebirds man has been eyeing this Saturday's game against Mick McCarthy's side for his first start.
"He’s definitely in a position now to start - in fact, he’s busting a gut to start," Warnock said in midweek.
"I’ve got to keep him back a little bit.
"But I think he’s got one eye on Cardiff on Saturday and he’s desperate to get some minutes on Tuesday to put himself in a position to start in that one."
In addition, Ashley Fletcher is expected to be out for two to three weeks, which will be a big blow for Neil Warnock.
Meanwhile, both Marcus Tavernier and Yannick Bolasie continue their training to get back to fitness, although neither sound ready to play on Saturday.
For the Bluebirds, there is some positive news.
Joe Ralls looks like he will be fit enough to be back in contention this weekend after finally shaking off his ankle problem.
City's midfield has been an area of strength in recent weeks, though, with Will Vaulks and Marlon Pack enjoying an impressive partnership in the middle of the park, meaning Ralls has his work cut out if he is to force his way back into the reckoning.
Junior Hoilett is in contention to start once again despite being omitted from the match-day squad against Bournemouth in midweek, while Jordi Osei-Tutu is on schedule to return from Arsenal for the week beginning March 8.
However, despite Lee Tomlin having played 45 minutes and 60 minutes respectively in the under-23s' last two matches, in the latter of which against Bristol City he scored, Mick McCarthy believes he is not quite ready to re-enter the first-team fold.
"Joe Ralls, possibly, not Lee Tomlin," McCarthy said.
"He played 60 minutes and he looks to be getting fitter. He is not fit enough to play in that [the win over Bournemouth], not a chance. He is nowhere near.
"The effort and work-rate that Kieffer [Moore] has had to put in and the two subs that have come on [Leandro Bacuna and Sheyi Ojo] and he is not there yet.
"He had 60 minutes and came off, did well in the game and scored, but not to be playing in that.
"But Joe, hopefully he will be OK."