MARTIN O’Neill has welcomed the resumption of competition for places in Sunderland’s ranks, with skipper Lee Cattermole now in contention for a comeback.
He could face Arsenal in tomorrow’s FA Cup fifth round clash after a two-week hamstring injury lay-off.
The 23-year-old’s return presents Sunderland boss O’Neill with a dilemma over the make-up of his midfield, with Jack Colback and Craig Gardner forming an effective partnership in Cattermole’s absence.
But O’Neill is not begrudging any difficult selection decisions, with a string of injuries since the turn of the year largely forcing his hand over Sunderland’s starting XI.
O’Neill told Sportmail: “Jack and Craig have done excellently.
“We’ll have to look at it and see what we do tomorrow.
“But it’s pleasing, considering where we were against Manchester City on New Year’s Day, when we had nine players out.
“Now we’ve got a few coming back and a bit of competition for places. As I’ve often said, it’s as healthy a thing as you want.
“Lee played splendidly before he was injured, but the two lads have done excellently in there as well, so we’ll see what we do.
“It’s really good news because you didn’t feel as if the injuries were going to end.”
Cattermole is not the only sidelined player on the road to recovery.
Centre-half Matt Kilgallon has enjoyed a week of training after recovering from ankle damage, while David Vaughan is closing in on a comeback after a similar injury.
Meanwhile, on-loan Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner is able to play with a mask protecting his broken nose, although the Dane is ineligible to feature against his parent club tomorrow.
“Lee Cattermole’s done some training this week,” added O’Neill.
“David Vaughan is improving by the day and Matt Kilgallon did a wee bit last week and has had a full week this week.
“Bendtner’s done some as well after being fitted with the mask, but he can’t play against Arsenal anyway.”
O’Neill is unlikely to make many changes even if Cattermole is included, with Sunderland suffering only a second defeat in 12 outings in last weekend’s Premier League clash with the Gunners.
But counterpart Arsene Wenger is expected to make at least two enforced changes from last Saturday’s 2-1 success at the Stadium of Light, with centre-halves Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny both unlikely to feature through injury.
Wenger could also wield the axe after Wednesday’s Champions League rout against AC Milan, with O’Neill expecting 18-year-old winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to start.
“I’m not sure what Arsenal will do,” said O’Neill.“My own view is that the young lad Oxlade-Chamberlain will probably play.
“But Koscielny looks like he might be out and Mertesacker will definitely be out.
“So they might have to make a few changes, but they’re well capable of doing that.”