STEVE Bruce says he will consider ringing the changes for the visit of West Brom tomorrow as he faces potentially his hardest team selection of the campaign.
The Sunderland boss has billed the fixture as a make-or-break game for Sunderland’s season and says in that context he will have to think long and hard about who plays.
Steed Malbranque is likely to return to the side as the manager looks to find greater midfield creativity and an end to a seven-hour goal drought. But Bolo Zenden and young Jack Colback – who did his chances no harm in a bright cameo against Manchester City – will also come into the picture, if not as starters then as subs.
Nedum Onuoha is poised to return at right-back after a four-game absence and that could be bad news for Anton Ferdinand who has filled in there in the absence of the on-loan Manchester City man.
Ferdinand is available for the left-back position but Phil Bardsley is expected to be fit enough to play after missing out on training in the week leading up to last Sunday’s game at Eastlands.
Also expected to be fit is Kieran Richardson, who has recovered from a slight hamstring strain.
He could play left-back if Bardsley doesn’t make it, but it is more likely he will return in central midfield – the position he was in when he strained his hamstring in Sunderland’s last home game, the match against Liverpool.
The players whose positions, along with Ferdinand’s are most under threat are Jordan Henderson and January signings Sulley Muntari and Stephane Sessegnon.
Henderson has been an ever-present in the side this season but the England Under 21 regular looks as though he’s approaching burn-out.
He was brought off on the hour against Manchester City last week – the first time he has been subbed significantly early in a game all season – and he may be left on the bench this weekend.
No-one in the Black Cats side covers more ground in a game than the young Sunderland-born midfielder but he has looked badly in need of a rest for weeks and Bruce has admitted that a heavy burden has been put on the youngster’s shoulders purely because he can bring so much energy to the side.
Muntari and Sessegnon also look in danger of dropping out of the side, with Sunderland having managed just three goals in six games since their arrival on Wearside. Neither has yet featured in a winning game for their new team.
It’s quite possible that the team this weekend might have a look to it familiar to earlier in the season, with Bardsley and Onuoha as full-backs and Richardson, Malbranque and Elmohamady in midfield.
But Bruce says he will probably leave a final decision until the day of the game.
“This is where you earn your money as a manager,” he told the Echo. “I have got to pick a team that will beat West Brom tomorrow.
“Whether that’s by going for experience, for youth or whatever, I have to find the right answers.
“I’ve told the players I will go on what I see in training this week – who is hungriest, who is sharpest – but I’ve got a few ideas in mind.
“We’ve got to go back to basics and find the form we had earlier in the season.”