MARTIN O’Neill insists any changes to his starting line-up this weekend will not weaken Sunderland’s side.
O’Neill will minimise the disruption to Sunderland’s XI in Sunday’s televised Wear-Tees derby as the Black Cats bid to advance to the fifth round of the FA Cup for the first time since 2004.
The Sunderland boss is forced to make at least one change after the injured Nicklas Bendtner was ruled out for several weeks, with Connor Wickham expected to take the on-loan Arsenal man’s place up front.
But the likes of goalkeeper Keiren Westwood and midfielder Craig Gardner, who grabbed his third goal of the season against Swansea last weekend, are also pushing hard for inclusion.
Even if O’Neill hands a chance to Westwood and Gardner though, he argues that he can hardly be accused of fielding an under-strength team.
O’Neill told the Echo: “The likes of Craig and Keiren don’t weaken our team.
“Keiren dropped out of the side unluckily through illness and Simon’s (Mignolet) come in, taken his chance and done very well.
“We’ve all said that Craig is very unlucky not to be in the starting line-up at the moment. He has a great chance of playing for us on Sunday.
“I won’t be making many changes though.
“If we had a sizeable squad and were able to pick and choose, it might become a different issue. But we’re not in a position to make that many. Certainly at this time, that would be difficult.”
Gardner is perhaps more likely than Westwood to return to the starting line-up and O’Neill insists the 25-year-old will be staying at the Stadium of Light this month despite the homesick midfielder being linked with a return to the West Midlands.
“I think that we’d wanting to be keeping Craig here,” said O’Neill. “We can always look at the situation again at the end of the season.
“He’s becoming a bit of a cult hero here now. Craig came on and got us a great goal last week and he’s capable of doing that.
“He can still add other parts to his game, but I think he’s a more rounded player than he was a couple of seasons ago.
“Maybe that time at Birmingham where he got a run of games showed what he could do and that is why Steve (Bruce) bought him.”
There could also be a place on the bench tomorrow for Fraizer Campbell after 17 months on the sidelines with two knee ligament injuries.
Campbell was not included in the 18 against Chelsea and Swansea despite being named in the matchday squad, but after playing 80 minutes for the reserves in midweek, the 24-year-old is in contention for a place among the substitutes.
“Fraizer travelled with us to Chelsea, but I didn’t put him in,” said O’Neill. “It was more to do with his fitness than anything else.
“Asking him to perform miracles for us is going to be difficult for us – it will take him time to get his form back to where it was before the injury. But there is a possibility he could be on the bench this weekend.”