RICKY ALVAREZ will be handed only his fourth Sunderland start at Fulham, as the Black Cats bid to secure their place in the FA Cup fifth round.
Argentine international Alvarez has been limited to a bit-part role since his arrival on a season-long loan from Inter Milan last summer, albeit he has been hit by a series of niggling injuries since returning from two months on the sidelines with a knee problem.
Sunderland have the option to sign Alvarez in an £8million deal next summer, but the 26-year-old has done little to justify such a lofty investment, although there have been some suggestions in Italy that the loan will automatically be made permanent if the Black Cats remain in the Premier League.
Gus Poyet is reluctant to be drawn on whether that is indeed the case, but the head coach has confirmed that Alvarez will start at Fulham tonight in the FA Cup fourth round replay – with Adam Johnson ruled out.
Poyet said: “Ricky needs to play. He will play tonight. That is one change I will tell you.
“I’m going to play him because he’s the type of player who need to play in certain games.
“The Burnley game was going okay in the second half, but it wasn’t really the right game for him.
“Tonight is a big opportunity for him and the longer he can play, the better.
“Ricky has been in and out. He’s never really had the chance to have a run of games and really perform.
“We will refresh a little bit tonight. He can refresh us a bit and give us a little bit of quality.
“He has incredible quality. He should make a difference. We need to make sure he’s an important player for us.”
Poyet’s quandary over Alvarez has been whether to use him out wide or in an attacking midfield role.
It has been a similar situation with Emanuele Giaccherini, who could also be in contention to start at Craven Cottage.
“Depending on the score on Saturday, Giaccy was a good option because he can open a game up,” added Poyet.
“We didn’t need that, which is welcome.
“I want the Giaccy that we saw in pre-season. He was our best player, with John O’Shea.
“He is getting closer to that. When you’re injured and you come back, you need to play.”
Steven Fletcher is expected to get a chance tonight, likely at the expense of Jermain Defoe, while Jack Rodwell returns from suspension and Wes Brown is fit after not being risked in Saturday’s win over Burnley.
Goalkeeper Vito Mannone, who replaced Costel Pantilimon for the first game against Fulham 10 days ago, could also be drafted back into the starting XI.