KADER MANGANE would already have made his Sunderland debut if the Black Cats were in a stronger position in the Premier League table, says Martin O’Neill.
Mangane is yet to make his first appearance in red and white after arriving on loan from Saudi Arabian outfit Al-Hilal during the January transfer window.
Concerns over the fitness of the Senegalese centre-half – who moved to the Middle East from French side Rennes last summer – have restricted the 29-year-old to a spot on the bench for the four games prior to today’s visit of Fulham.
But Mangane played the full 90 minutes of Monday night’s Under-21 draw with Everton and O’Neill says his fitness levels have improved significantly since first joining the Black Cats.
O’Neill claims Mangane would even made his Premier League debut by now if Sunderland were not plagued by lingering relegation fears.
The Sunderland manager told the Echo: “It’s an interesting dilemma.
“If we had more points on the board at this moment, I don’t think there’d be a problem playing him.
“We wanted him to play in a big-sided game on Monday rather than six or seven-a-side, which we tend to do in training. But he will definitely play for the team at some point.
“He could be absolutely fine for us and it shouldn’t be a reflection on him that he’s not played so far.
“I don’t want there to be any recriminations by concerns over fitness, but the only way we can properly judge him is by playing a game.”
O’Neill admits the performance of last season’s January loan signing, Sotirios Kyrgiakos, is prompting him to take a cautious approach with Mangane.
Kyrgiakos endured a harrowing debut during a 2-0 defeat at Blackburn Rovers and continued to struggle during his subsequent three appearances for Sunderland.
“We want him to be in as good a shape as possible,” added O’Neill. “Last season, we put Kyrgiakos in two weeks too early and then his first game made big impressions.
“Sometimes, it’s hard to fight back from that. But he (Mangane) feels he’s fine and sometimes, it’s taking a risk with those players because you’re not exactly sure.
“He’s not missed a day of training and he’s been doing fine.”