Jan Kirchhoff makes his long-awaited return to competitive action tonight – and Robbie Stockdale is anticipating a tough game for Sunderland.
Sunderland travel to Rochdale for their opening game of the Checkatrade Trophy (7.45pm kick-off) with Kirchhoff in line to make his first start of the season.
Kirchhoff has been out injured with a hamstring strain suffered in the penultimate pre-season friendly in France.
But he will get his first chance to impress David Moyes at the Crown Oil Arena tonight.
New signing Jason Denayer, signed on a season-long loan from Manchester City, is also in line for his first start with Billy Jones set to make his return from a hip injury.
Sunderland will have to field six players who are 21 or under in their starting XI against Rochdale – currently bottom of League One – with first-teamers eligible for the remaining positions.
New striker Victor Anichebe could be in the squad but he isn’t expected to start.
“Jan Kirchhoff will be involved,” first team coach Stockdale told the Echo.
“We are just waiting on the fitness of a couple, we are hopeful Jason Denayer will be involved too, after seeing how he has come through a couple of days training.
“There might be one more, we are just waiting on his fitness.
“The added extra is there is a result on the night that means something against a senior opposition.
“It is good to blood the senior players back into this kind of game, the first team played against Shrewsbury Town in a similar situation and it was a tough game.
“If you had played Jan in that game there is not much difference with him playing against Rochdale.
“Obviously the crowd will be different and you are not too sure what to expect.
“But in terms of the actual standard of game, it means probably he will have to work that little bit harder than if we played, with all due respect, at Hetton against some of the teams they (Under-23s) have played so far which are Under-17 or Under-18 teams.
“From that perspective, that is another real plus for us.”
When asked about Anichebe’s chances of starting tonight, Stockdale – who will take charge of Sunderland – said: “In terms of Victor, it may just be a little too early for him to play.”
Manager David Moyes and assistant manager Paul Bracewell will be watching the game from the stands.
The revamped Football League Trophy, which has suffered from poor attendances, has caused controversy after Premier League Under-23 sides were invited to participate for the first time alongside League One and League Two outfits.
Six of the 16 top flight clubs invited rejected the offer but Sunderland Under-23s are taking part and they are in Northern Group F with Hartlepool United, Rochdale and Notts County.
With the current international break, Sunderland are not back in first team action until Monday, when Everton visit Wearside.
Stockdale believes the Checkatrade Trophy fixture has been timed well from Sunderland’s perspective to give some returning first team players vital minutes.
“For us it is perfect, it works with the game not being until the following Monday,” added Stockdale.
“This week it has worked out quite well for us.
“The players will play tonight, then recovery and have a day off and then Friday all the international boys will be back.
“It gives us a nice lead into the game on Monday night.”