LEE Cattermole successfully came through a practice match at the Academy of Light at the weekend and is on course to lead Sunderland’s end-of-season run-in.
The Black Cats’ skipper managed an hour’s football on Saturday – his first competitive game of 2011 – and, with his back problem showing no obvious reaction, has been given permission to step up his bid to return to the first team.
It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that he could make the bench for this Sunday’s visit of Liverpool.
But with Steve Bruce not short of options in central midfield at the moment, the manager’s preference is to err on the side of caution and instead look to target the game against Manchester City at the start of April at the earliest.
Bruce said: “We’re trying to nurse Lee through at the moment.
“It has been an awkward one for him. Not straightforward at all. And the last thing we want to do is take risks.
“As things stand, we have options in central midfield, we’ve got Sulley Muntari and Jordan Henderson playing there but Steed Malbranque, Kieran Richardson, Bolo Zenden can all play there if needed and the last thing we want to do is hurry Lee back.
“The lad’s had a tough time and I know how frustrated he has been but these might be the most important few days in terms of giving him as long as needs to recuperate in order to come back properly.”
Cattermole was one of several first-team players on the injury list who got an outing in the weekend’s game.
It was an in-squad match, with teams made up of Sunderland’s first team, reserve team and youth players and it lasted 60 minutes.
As well as Cattermole, Danny Welbeck, Fraizer Campbell, Bolo Zenden and Nedum Onuoha all took part. And the good news for Sunderland is that all five came through unscathed.
It means the squad is on course for Bruce’s prediction of a full-scale return to full strength in the final quarter of the season.
He told the Echo: “It’s great that we’re finally seeing players getting closer to full fitness after such a long time out – there’s no doubt their absences have been a hindrance for us.
“We’re still going to be missing important players like Michael Turner and David Meyler but the fact that we’ve got so many players genuinely coming back is great news for us in a run-in to the end of the season that we’re determined to end strongly.”