Sunderland’s Carlos Cuellar in the running for City clash

Carlos Cuellar.
Carlos Cuellar.
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CARLOS Cuellar could make a surprise return to Sunderland’s first team tomorrow after making faster than expected progress from a hamstring strain.

The Spanish defender has been sidelined since feeling the muscle tighten in the Black Cats 1-1 draw with Liverpool at the Stadium of Light in mid-September.

He was replaced at half-time by Titus Bramble who has gone on to do a sterling job in Cuellar’s absence and was expected to continue deputising for a few weeks more to come.

But Cuellar has recovered more quickly than expected – perhaps a benefit of his good sense in drawing the problem to Martin O’Neill’s attention during the half-time break, rather than trying to play on – and is now on the verge of a return.

O’Neill said: “I know Carlos well and I knew that there would have to be a very, very good reason for him not to see a game through.

“He said during the break against Liverpool that he had felt the hamstring tighten throughout the opening 45 minutes and that when he’d sent a header back short to Simon Mignolet, it was because he’d had a problem physically jumping for the ball.”

Tests afterwards confirmed that the 31-year-old had a torn hamstring and he was expected to be out for four to six weeks.

But the recovery has been swifter than first projected and Cuellar could even come into consideration for tomorrow’s game against Manchester City.

O’Neill told the Echo: “He’s back in training and it actually wasn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that he might have been available for the game against Wigan last weekend.

“He trained last Friday but said he just didn’t quite feel 100 per cent, so we left it.

“But he’s had another good week in training and depending upon how these last few training sessions go, he could potentially come into contention for the Man City game.”

Cuellar and John O’Shea have been the manager’s preferred first-choice central defensive partnership this season and it’s fair to assume that when the Spaniard is fully fit again he can be expected to return to the starting 11.

But O’Neill admits that Bramble has given him food for thought in the subsequent league games and he is happy for the former Wigan defender to continue in the side for as long as he needs to.

“Titus was outstanding against Wigan and has played well overall,” he said. “He’s a top quality defender and it’s great for a manager to have a player of his calibre ready to step in if there’s an injury. He’s done his chances no harm at all with the performances he’s given.”

O’Neill and Scotland boss Craig Levein were among the interested spectators at a behind-closed-doors friendly between Middlesbrough and Sunderland yesterday.

Levein, who was on Wearside for peace talks with Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher, also watched Scottish international James McFadden’s performance in what turned out to be a 2-1 win for the Black Cats at Boro’s Rockcliffe training ground.

The game was organised primarily to improve Phil Bardsley’s match fitness but Ryan Noble did his best to catch the eye with the striker scoring twice after Scott McDonald had put the home team ahead.