STEVEN Fletcher is an injury doubt heading into this week’s Capital One Cup semi-final against Manchester United.
The £12m striker has a niggling injury which forced him out of the starting line-up against Southampton at the weekend.
And Sunderland head coach Gus Poyet says it will be touch and go whether he is involved at Old Trafford on Wednesday, when the Black Cats hope to build on their 2-1 victory in the semi-final first leg by reaching Wembley.
Fletcher came off the substitutes’ bench for the ineffectual Jozy Altidore in the last 20 minutes of Sunderland’s tense game against Southampton on Saturday.
But Poyet revealed: “We were trying not to play him at all because he had a problem, a little injury.
“We would not have involved him if we had been doing well.”
Fletcher was the only one of the Sunderland substitutes not to warm up before the game, although the former Wolves and Burnley striker seemed to be moving fairly freely once he was introduced in its later stages.
“I asked him to take a risk for him and for his team-mates and, credit to him, he did,” said Poyet. “It’s a tricky injury and he could have made it worse.
“But he was happy in his warm-up and on the bike indoors before the game, and he gave us a very good 20 minutes.
“Sometimes you have to think of the player and I did not want to be responsible for him getting injured by starting him in the game. But he came through it OK and we just have to assess how it will be in the next few days.”
Fletcher’s form in front of goal has been patchy since his return from a long-term foot injury.
He has scored just three goals in 20 appearances this season, but the Scotland international is the club’s most natural finisher and came close to snatching what would have been a winning goal against the Saints.
Certainly, Fletcher is a player Poyet will hope to be able to call on for a game which gives Sunderland the chance to reach a final for the first time in 22 years.
The Uruguayan told the Echo before Saturday’s game that he wanted a win over Southampton to send Sunderland into Wednesday’s tie on a high from their first back-to-back league victories.
But having seen his side comprehensively outplayed in the opening half-hour by the Saints, Poyet was just satisfied to see Sunderland end the game strongly and collect another Premier League point.
“We finished the game well and that is an important thing,” he said. “We were fighting and tackling, which was great, and we were lucky not to have any more injuries – which is also important.”
Apart from Fletcher, Sunderland have a clean bill of health – though there are, of course, a couple of longer-term injuries. Keeper Keiren Westwood is sidelined for several months following shoulder surgery, while defender Carlos Cuellar is expected to return to training next week from a troublesome hip injury which has kept him out since early November.