MARTIN O’Neill admits he faces a difficult decision over Phil Bardsley’s fitness ahead of the Wear-Tyne derby.
The full-back has not kicked a ball in anger this season after injuring an ankle in the very first week of pre-season.
But for the last few weeks he has been back in full training, and with a couple of warm-up games under his belt, could potentially come into contention.
The dilemma though is obvious. A fully-fit Bardsley would be automatic first choice at right-back, and if the Scottish international was available it would allow Craig Gardner to finally get into the central midfield role he prefers, and from which he could cause most damage.
But it would still represent a bold gamble to throw Bardsley back into the first team in the most emotive and livewire fixture of the season.
O’Neill told the Gazette: “If it was three weeks from now, it simply wouldn’t be an issue.
“By that stage, we know Phil would be ready for a return – he’s been training with the first team for the last couple of weeks, he’s had warm-up games with no reaction, and he’s going in the right direction.
“We know how good a player he is, and how competitive, but it’s something we have to look at closely, and it is a difficult one.”
Certainly O’Neill knows how beneficial it would be to have Gardner – one of Sunderland’s best and most consistent performers this season – further upfield.
“Craig is a goalscoring midfielder, and there’s not too many around in the modern game,” the Black Cats boss added.
“He’s always capable of getting you a goal because he’s got a great shot on him, he knows where the goal is, and he’ll shoot if he gets a chance.
“Obviously his goalscoring chances are limited at right-back, and we’re keen to get him into central midfield as soon as we can, but he’s also done a great job for us this season at right-back.
“And if we need him there this weekend, then at least we know we can rely on him there.”
O’Neill plans to make his selection decision late this weekend.
He said: “We’ve got a number of issues to consider – Danny Rose has had a difficult week, Adam Johnson has come back later than expected, but most important of all, we’ve had a week very much disrupted by the international fixtures.
“The good news is that everyone appears to have come back in reasonable shape, but the downside is we’ve had very little chance to train as a squad or to work on things.
“For that reason it’s a case of these few training sessions being very important to see how everyone is, where they’re at, and what’s the best way forward for Sunday’s game.”