THE OLD FACES have dominated the agenda of a new era this week.
Steven Fletcher and Phil Bardsley’s return to full training has prompted fierce debate over whether either could or – particularly in the latter’s case – should be included for Gus Poyet’s opening game as Sunderland boss.
The pair of Scotland internationals have at least added to Poyet’s threadbare training options at the Academy of Light during the international break, with nine of the squad only just returning to the fold.
But given the hints that Poyet has made over Fletcher’s conditioning and Jozy Altidore’s draining trans-Atlantic return from USA duty in Panama, it would not be a major surprise if last season’s top scorer starts tomorrow.
Poyet couldn’t keep the smile from his face yesterday as he discussed Fletcher’s sooner-than-expected return.
Goals are golden in Sunderland’s current predicament and Poyet knows that Fletcher offers his best hope in that department.
But while Fletcher hasn’t played for almost a month, he is still in a far better physical condition than Bardsley.
The former Manchester United man was limited to pre-season outings for the Under-21s before breaking his foot in August.
Some on the terraces have understandably voiced their opposition to Sunderland’s longest-serving first-teamer coming back into the fold after his faux pas in the casino and on social media.
But Poyet has to adopt a clean slate with those at his disposal and Bardsley is an experienced battler for what promises to be a brutal dogfight over the months to come.
In the pecking order of selection decisions though, neither Fletcher or Bardsley should be hitting number one spot this weekend.
That honour belongs to the replacement for the ineligible Ki Sung-Yeung.
Poyet will not want to make major changes to a side who played with such heart and determination against Manchester United prior to the international break.
And in the 4-3-3/4-5-1 system deployed by caretaker boss Kevin Ball, Poyet inherits the formation he overwhelmingly favoured at Brighton.
But the absence of on-loan Swansea midfielder Ki is a blow.
The South Korean was guilty of a handful of soft giveaways against Manchester United, yet he has added some much-needed composure to Sunderland’s central midfield and the combination with Lee Cattermole and Craig Gardner is a well-balanced one.
Replacing Ki is not easy.
Seb Larsson doesn’t boast Ki’s knack of dictating the tempo and it may be that Poyet turns to David Vaughan or Cabral in that pivotal role.
Leon Britton performs a similar task for Swansea, but is an injury doubt, along with Ben Davies, while skipper Ashley Williams is definitely out.
The absence of Williams is a boost to Sunderland’s hopes, with Swansea conceding eight times in their three home Premier League games so far this season, albeit they have been against Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool.
The demands of the Europa League have hampered Michael Laudrup’s side, who have struggled to find the fluency of the last two years.
Given Sunderland’s woeful defensive record, front pair Michu and Wilfried Bony will inevitably be looking to address those worries and secure a first top-flight Liberty success since March 2.
But now that the Black Cats’ search for a new manager has been resolved, Sunderland’s players will be desperate to repeat the bounce they enjoyed under both Martin O’Neill and Paolo Di Canio.
Every point is precious for Sunderland now and if they can get just one, it would be a start on the road to recovery, particularly with the derby on the horizon.