David Moyes has warned not to expect too much too soon when three key Sunderland players eventually return to action.
Jan Kirchhoff is back in full training and in line for a return to the squad for Burnley on Saturday but Victor Anichebe and Lee Cattermole won’t be back until next month.
With games running out for Sunderland - six points adrift of safety at the foot of the Premier League - Moyes needs his key men back to bolster the flagging fight for survival.
But the Black Cats boss says expectations need to be measured when they do return given the length of time all three have been out.
Kirchhoff hasn’t played since December, with Anichebe ruled out since January and Cattermole has only played three games all season.
Having returned to training and featured for the Under-23s, Kirchhoff is expected to be in the squad to face Burnley but Anichebe and Cattermole won’t be involved for at least another three weeks.
Moyes said: “I’m hoping to get Victor back at the beginning of April, we’re looking at around another three weeks.
“There’s a chance Lee Cattermole could be back in three weeks, I’m not convinced but I’m hoping so. We’d be hoping then for Kirchhoff certainly.
“The thing is people have been out injured, you can’t expect them to come back and hit the ground running, they’ve been out so long. They’ve missed so much.
“For them to make the difference is not an easy thing to do, they’ve missed most of the season.”
Cattermole has been out since the Autumn after undergoing hip surgery in the US after a specialist found he was suffering from torn cartilage in his hip.
The influential midfielder, a major loss in Sunderland’s season-long battle against the drop, suffered a setback in his recovery last month when he needed an injection in his Achilles.
Moyes remains hopeful he will have him back for the run-in as Sunderland battle agains relegation.
On Cattermole, Moyes added: “That’s the problem, we might not have the three games to give him to find his yard, so we might need to find that another way.”
Anichebe - who was a key factor in the spell of four wins out of seven in November and December - was ruled out for 10 weeks with knee ligament damage in late January.
Sunderland’s attacking threat has been hit by his absence, with the powerful forward linking up well with 14-goal top scorer Jermain Defoe.
The 28-year-old has been working hard in the gym and on the exercise bike, while also spending time in the US city of Philadelphia on his road to recovery.
Kirchhoff, who has been back in full training for three weeks, made his long-awaited comeback against Manchester United Under-23s last week.
The German, who suffered a cartilage tear in his knee in December, played 64 minutes in the 3-1 defeat but was not involved in Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Leicester City.
Kirchhoff was one of four first team players to feature for the Under-23s last week but neither he, Lynden Gooch, George Honeyman or Donald Love were involved yesterday.
The first team squad had been given a few days off ahead of preparations for Burnley stepping up this week.