Sunderland are still having to wrap Jan Kirchhoff in cotton wool after the midfielder spent the first half of the season watching from the stands.
Kirchhoff has been a big success story for Sam Allardyce after his £750,000 January move from Bayern Munich, with the German thriving in the holding role in front of the back four.
It’s that pace of the Premier League that he’s never had before.
However, the 25-year-old is yet to reach peak match fitness after playing just two minutes as a substitute for Bayern this season prior to his arrival at the Stadium of Light.
That told in the second half of Tuesday night’s 2-2 draw against Crystal Palace, with Kirchhoff notably tiring and boss Allardyce forced to make a substitution to avoid injury.
Without Kirchhoff’s presence in midfield, the game swung against Sunderland, yet Allardyce insists he couldn’t have risked keeping him on the field.
Allardyce said: “We lost midfield when he left the field.
“He had been controlling the midfield again after he had been outstanding at West Ham.
“But it’s that pace of the Premier League that he’s never had before.
“Having not played for two or three months, we have to nurse him onto the field.
“I took him off on Tuesday and people will say ‘why did you take him off?’
“But he was tiring and if he’d have pulled a calf or hamstring and we lost him for three or four weeks, it would have been a huge blow.”
Kirchhoff is expected to be fully fit for Saturday’s trip to Southampton after the entire Sunderland squad travelled straight to the Academy of Light following the conclusion of Tuesday’s game with Palace for an ice-bath session to recover.
But Lee Cattermole will not feature at St Mary’s due to concussion, while skipper John O’Shea is a major doubt due to a calf issue.