SUNDERLAND are treating Stephane Sessegnon with kid gloves in a bid to ensure the Benin international does not burn himself out in his first full season in the Premier League.
The 27-year-old was recently given leave to take a few days off in order to recharge his batteries and spend some time with his family.
And Sunderland are also monitoring the situation with next week’s African Cup of Nations qualifier, which will see Sessegnon linking up with the Benin squad ahead of their game against Ethiopia next Wednesday.
Sessegnon is due to begin the long haul after today’s game against West Bromwich Albion and O’Neill says Sunderland are concerned about next week’s internationals in general – and Sessegnon’s in particular.
He told the Echo: “We gave him a few days off last week because we recognise he’s had a heavy workload.
“He’s not missed a game for us so we wanted to give him that bit of extra time off.
“It allowed him to get away and maybe see his family in Paris and I think he appreciated the time he got off.
“And I think the few days he did have to himself showed in his play.
“I thought he was pretty sharp for a lot of the game against Arsenal and we’re just looking to look after him in that direction.”
Sessegnon has played in all 25 of Sunderland’s Premier League games so far this season – the only player in the squad to do so.
He has also played in every cup tie this season, but O’Neill appreciates the importance of the African match next week.
“It’s a qualifying game, so it’s important and he will face a long haul, quite a distance.
“We’ll look at how best we can deal with that and the same goes for the other players involved in internationals.
“It’s not ideal and I am concerned about the number of internationals before the derby.
“It means the first I’ll see a lot of the players is Friday morning – but there’s nothing we can do about it. We just have to get on with it.
“But certainly, as far as Stephane is concerned, he’s a very special player to us. He’s the one player above all in our squad who can make things happen and we want to make sure we get the best out of him.”