YOUNG England international Abbey Joice returns to action for Sunderland Ladies tomorrow.
The Lady Black Cats host Aston Villa at Eppleton CW (3pm) looking to extend their lead at the top of Women’s Super League 2.
In a busy week, Sunderland also entertain Durham next Thursday before travelling to London Bees on Sunday week.
And the return from ankle injury of England Under-19 forward Joice, who has missed the last eight games, is a major boost to manager Mick Mulhern.
“Abbey is a creative player, a link between midfield and attack, and she has the ability to go beyond the striker,” he said.
“Yes, we’ve missed a player of that quality.
“She started to build a partnership with (top scorer) Beth Mead last season, and it was working well.
“Her fitness is getting better but there’s no guarantee she will start against Villa. We’ve got three games in a week and we need to manage the players in the best way.
“If we are going to win promotion, we need to keep our players fit.
“We have lost the likes of (centre-halves) Steph Bannon and Gemma Wilson, (midfielder) Rachel Furness and Abbey through injury, as well as Beth Mead to England duty at various times.
“It’s down the spine of the team and we’ve stuttered a little because of it.”
Mulhern expects a tough game against Villa, who have won their last four games – although they are off the pace in the title race.
Sunderland are on 26 points after 10 games, with main rivals Doncaster just two points behind.
The Black Cats drew at third-top Reading last weekend. Doncaster visit the Royals tomorrow in another big game.
Villa, who Sunderland beat 3-0 earlier in the campaign, are fifth on 14 points.
“Aston Villa are a very good side,” said Mulhern.
“Although we won down there, my keeper, Rachael Laws, pulled off some great saves to keep them out.
“They are on a roll with four wins in a row. They are one of the teams I fancied to challenge this season, so we treat them with the utmost respect.”