SUNDERLAND manager Martin O’Neill may have to rely on goals from new boy Danny Graham to stave off the threat of relegation.
The Black Cats are still sweating on the fitness of top scorer Steven Fletcher – amid fears that the ankle injury he suffered on international duty could sideline him for weeks.
Fletcher was stretchered off just two minutes into Scotland’s World Cup qualifier against Wales on Friday after falling awkwardly.
And while Sunderland are still waiting for confirmation of the extent of the injury, speculation is growing that he could miss a major chunk of the remaining games.
That would be a huge blow to O’Neill, who has seen the 25-year-old summer signing score a third of his side’s goals this season.
And although the Scot’s goal tally has tailed off since the New Year, he still remains by far Sunderland’s most dangerous player in front of goal.
Although the club insists it is too early yet to determine the level of injury – though it is not a break – ligament damage could rule Fletcher out for up to six weeks, leaving him only being available for the last couple of games of the campaign.
The injury shows the importance of signing a striker in January, and if Fletcher is out for a significant period, then £5m signing Graham will have a major role to play.
Graham, who has yet to break his duck in six attempts since his move from Swansea – would probably be used as the lone striker in a 4-5-1 formation.
The 27-year-old Tynesider – who some fans were against buying – scored four goals in four games shortly before his move to the Stadium of Light and Sunderland would love to see a similar flurry to enable a climb up the Premier League table.
A daunting programme sees Sunderland next play Manchester United (home), Chelsea (away), Newcastle (away) and Everton (home), followed by a trip to Villa, and then a home game with Stoke.
If Fletcher is out for six weeks, he would then possibly be back for the final two games of the season, at home to Southampton and away to Spurs.
Sunderland will certainly hope that the news on the £12m striker is better than feared, and O’Neill should have medical confirmation on Fletcher’s injury in the next 48 hours.